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Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2011

Army seeks safe Soldier solutions through research

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FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. — Imagine a checkpoint where Soldiers don’t have to walk up to a vehicle that’s been rigged to explode, but instead, they can detect the explosives at safe, standoff distances. That’s the kind of technology the Army Research Laboratory, or ARL, is investing in as part of a research effort now shared with the Leonard Wood Institute in Missouri.

That technology is laser spectroscopy, which can be used for standoff explosive detection, is based on ARL’s advanced research in laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy. It is 1980s technology that today can detect explosive threats in real time, sometimes processing agent analysis in as little as one-second. The Leonard Wood Institute work involved advancing current technology to detect such threats, including home-made explosives, beyond 20 meters.

The Leonard Wood Institute, or LWI, is a non-profit organization located at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., that was created to connect regional businesses and university expertise to Army training and technology needs. Its formal Cooperative Agreement with ARL’s Human Research and Engineering Directorate allows LWI to initiate, fund, manage and participate in applied research, and build capacity to support Army innovation.

The laser spectroscopy testing launched at Fort Leonard Wood looks to be a promising way to keep Soldiers out of harm’s way, experts say. The newest system based on that technology, the Checkpoint Explosives Detection System, uses a multi-modal approach to detect harmful materials. The system combines ARL’s laser induced breakdown spectroscopy, the ultraviolet Raman spectroscopy and Townsend effect plasma spectroscopy.

This combination could be vital in the counter-improvised explosive device, or IED, effort and thereby, saving lives in current and future counter-IED operations, said Alan Davison, chief of the Maneuver and Mobility Branch with ARL’s Human Research and Engineering Directorate at the Fort Leonard Wood Institute.

U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan and Iraq currently have no effective means to detect trace elements of explosives from a distance that make up the enemies’ strategic weapon of choice, IEDs, which are the primary cause of death and injury to American Soldiers.

Improving upon systems like this, while also using robots, keeps Soldiers out of harm’s way.

“One of the biggest challenges that Soldiers have when operating robots is that the two-dimension computer displays they use provide very limited depth perception,” Davison said. “Two-dimension displays do not provide the kind of depth perception needed to perform many military tasks.”

Three-dimensional visualization, however, greatly improves the Soldier’s ability to mentally place an object in the spatial world. ARL researchers believe that by combining the benefits of 3-D or stereo vision with tactile feedback enhanced manipulation, Soldiers will be much better enabled to locate and manipulate objects associated with IEDs. This improved capability should also lead to less time in hazardous zones while working with IEDs or their components.

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