MS. REBECCA SHEIR
We're going to head to another science lab now, one that's geared toward protecting members of the military while they're deployed overseas. Matt M. Casey has the story.
MR. MATT M. CASEY
Not far from Washington, D.C., a team of civilian scientists at Virginia's Fort Belvoir use chemistry to keep U.S. soldiers safe from explosives.
MR. MATT M. CASEY
That sound you hear is the air pump in a machine called FIDO. The pistol-shaped device sniffs the air, searching for particles called nitro-aromatic compounds emitted by military grade explosives. Aaron LaPointe, an explosive detection researcher at the Army's Night Vision and Electronic Sensor Directorate, says FIDO is built around a polymer coating on the inside of a narrow tube. When exposed to light, the polymer generates its own glow.
MR. AARON LAPOINTE
When those molecules come close to this they'll be pulled in and then they will adhere. This would land right on that polymer material. And when they do that, there's an electronic transfer process that happens. And it shuts the light off. I always use the analogy of Christmas lights.
When those Christmas lights blink off, the machine lets you know. In an explosive-free environment FIDO’s output sounds like a Geiger counter.
But when explosives are in the area, it sounds like this.
Okay. No mistaking that.
No. No mistaking that, right.
To demonstrate FIDO'S sensitivity, LaPointe holds an empty vial in front of the sniffer.
At one point, I put a small spec of TNT in here, and then I pulled it out. All right, I think years ago. As you can see, the sensitivity, I mean, you can't tell me where that explosive is, right? Does that look like that has an explosive in it?
No, it's empty.
LaPointe says these devices help soldiers find targets of interest in areas of interest. Between the machine's calibration and the soldier's training, they can tell the difference between harmless spent gunpowder and the very real threat of an improvised bomb. But while FIDO is impressive, this device is already out of date.
The hardware that you're seeing here was developed back in the '06 time frame. There have been improvements made sense then. I can't get into that, but there is work going on to improve its usability.
But even the improve FIDO would probably be out of place in LaPointe's lab. The model LaPointe demonstrates has the tight compact appearance of a mass produced product. The projects he usually works on lack that kind of polish.
We work on things that are more, you know, put together with duct tape and network analyzers on a cart like this. We're trying to explore at the scientific level, what are the fundamentals that we can apply to the problem?
Citing security reasons, LaPointe and his colleagues say they can't talk about the specifics of their current work. Developing a new sensor can take years or decades, LaPointe says. And he doesn't want enemy combatants to know how to defeat a new tool before it reaches the battlefield. But he can speak in broad terms.
We have on our team about 15 engineers and scientists looking at different discipline areas. Some are acoustic experts, some are metal detection experts. We have some laser experts. So we try to cross the board, have people that are grounded in the fundamentals, request all of, you know, physics and chemistry, so that we can try to apply that to the problem.
Each approach presents its own technical hurdles, which LaPointe's team battles on a regular basis, but his group also has to take the soldiers into account. Directorate spokesperson Kimberly Bell puts it like this…
MS. KIMBERLY BELL
How easy is it for an 18 year old in the field to use?
Beyond simplicity, LaPointe has to make sure the finished products don't break, don't weigh the soldier down and don't interfere with his other jobs. And that's something he says his team tries to take into account from the earliest stages of development. LaPointe says the challenge of trying to find and detect hidden explosives is humbling and there's good reason why Congress has been funding such an initiatives in recent years.
In 2010 Wired magazine reported that the Pentagon had spent 19 billion on bomb detection equipment in the previous six years.
So these type of things do not come around quickly. It takes, you know, steady perseverance and understanding the fundamentals and then trying to apply that to the problem.
Despite the obstacles, Bell says the pay off of this work can be huge. One of the center's past coordinators shared a story upon her retirement about how Directorate technology saved her husband.
He was actually in a vehicle, using the technology that she'd worked on and it saved his life when his vehicle actually ran into some buried mines that were in the road. You know, when she told us this story she got teary eyed and said, I can't believe something that I worked on what seemed like a million years ago saved my husband's life.
That time it was a former coordinator's husband. Next time it could be your neighbor.
I'm Matt M. Casey.
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