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20 November 2019 5 min read

Detecting explosives and narcotics

Explosives and narcotics are two major threats being tackled by security agents around the world.

In recent years, security agents have increasingly focused on detecting these threats in the hundreds of millions of mail and parcels shipped daily.

Standard parcel or luggage scanners, such as those used at airports, use X-ray technology to image contents.

The drawback of X-ray scanners is that they only give you a picture of what’s inside, resulting in many false positives. For example, X-rays may pick up modelling clay in baggage contents because it looks like something suspicious, when further interrogation would reveal it as innocuous.

That’s where CSIRO's magnetic resonance sensors step in. Magnetic resonance sensors are able to directly and accurately detect the presence of explosive and narcotic substances, such as nitrogen.

CSIRO has been developing magnetic resonance applications for the mining industry over the last 20 years. Its most recent success has been a bulk ore sorting sensor solution that uses magnetic resonance to identify high grade ore from waste.

The CSIRO team, based at Lucas Heights in New South Wales, recognised the opportunity to apply the underlying magnetic resonance technology to security applications.

"The advantage of magnetic resonance for explosives and narcotics detection is that it directly detects the presence of the substances by latching onto its chemical signature," CSIRO team leader, Richard Yong, says.

"We take advantage of physical properties by sending a radio pulse into the material and reading the response signal for nitrogen. It’s fundamentally the same sensing technique for measuring copper in mineral ore as it is for measuring nitrogen in an explosive."

Building on the success of the CSIRO developed air cargo scanner, a nuclear-based solution used to scan cargo at airports around the world, the team is working with Chinese manufacturer Nuctech on two magnetic resonance based technologies for parcel scanning.

The first is a hand-held scanner with a sensing head that's 15 centimetres in diameter. It can be used by an individual to scan for explosives and narcotics under clothing and within packages, without making any contact with the person, luggage or parcel – a key advantage over other techniques.

The second solution is a magnetic resonance-based scanner on a conveyor designed for use on large parcels. It accurately measure substances, as opposed to simply imaging what's inside like X-ray machines do.

"Magnetic resonance-based scanning is incredibly accurate, but it’s slower than X-ray-based scanners," Mr Yong says.

"We envisage security officers initially scanning parcels using an X-ray scanner, and then sending identified packages for further analysis using our magnetic resonance scanner to either confirm or nullify as suspicious."

Mr Yong believes this solution would be particularly useful for detecting threats in the hundreds of millions of mail and parcels sent daily.

A fully-operational prototype of the CSIRO and Nuctech conveyor-based parcel scanner has been developed. The next stage will involve securing interest from the market for trials.

"We are not the only group to explore magnetic resonance for security applications, but we believe we are best placed to scale up solutions," CSIRO group leader, David Miljak, says.

"A fair amount of magnetic resonance based research happens on very small sample volumes. But there aren't many laboratories positioned to take the measurement to a conveyor that is 10-times bigger, like we have done in the mining space.

"Our advantage is that we have proven that we can scale these sensors for mining applications, at an arguably more challenging scale, than for luggage or parcels."

Trialling 3D imaging tech with Boeing

New 3D imaging technology developed to rapidly build a high quality picture of the underground mine environment, is being applied to large-scale manufacturing.

CSIRO has developed a software and hardware system that's capable of generating 3D models. It integrates stereo-vision with prior knowledge of the scene, such as from a laser ranging system, which speeds up and improves the accuracy of 3D image reconstruction.

The technology is called Stereo Depth Fusion and has attracted the interest of aeroplane manufacturer, Boeing, who is working with CSIRO to demonstrate the benefits of this approach for manufacturing.

"Just like in mining, manufacturers require high-resolution 3D images for situational awareness and simulation," CSIRO team leader, Marc Elmouttie, says.

This supports operational decisions in regard to safety, productivity and process optimisation.

"Quality control measures for manufacturing processes involve inspecting product details and validating it against design. This can be, depending on the industry, very time consuming, manually-intensive and prone to error," Dr Elmouttie says.

"Our 3D imaging technology can overcome these drawbacks, by providing data that can be analysed quickly and possibly autonomously."

Beyond manufacturing and mining, Dr Elmouttie believes that the technology is advantageous in any application where high speed 3D imaging is required such as in some medical imaging applications, as well as for equipment wear analysis.

Tackling the corporate trust issue

Voconiq co-founders, formerly from CSIRO, left to right: CEO Kieren Moffat, Service Direcotor, Naomi Boughen, and Business Development Director, Rolf Fandrich.

As highlighted in CSIRO's recent Australian National Outlook 2019 report, a social licence to operate continues to be a top business risk facing industry today.

CSIRO maintains a large social science effort, with one of its most recent successes culminating in the spin out of its social insights capability into a new Australian company, Voconiq.

Launched this year, Voconiq uses a data-driven approach to tackle declining trust in industries spanning mining and agriculture to fisheries and infrastructure.

"We capture real-time insights into community sentiment across time and locations, with the aim of helping companies, and the communities they work alongside, build greater trust and mutually-beneficial outcomes," Voconiq CEO, Kieren Moffat, says.

Having grown strong market demand from big players such as BHP, Rio Tinto and Newmont Gold in the mining domain, it's no surprise that other industries grappling with their social licence are paying attention to this social insights service too.

In the agriculture space, Voconiq recently secured contracts with AgriFutures Australia and LiveCorp, adding to work already underway with Australian Eggs.

The company also announced a project involving several farming, fishing and forestry groups, which has been set up to tackle the challenge of community trust following concerns over the public perception of their industry practices and value.

"A social licence has been a challenge for mining for some time, and now agricultural and other industries are experiencing similar pressures and are looking for ways to build deeper trust with communities," Dr Moffat says.

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