The Military Now Has X-Ray Guns

Want a handheld blaster to look through walls?

U.S. Army soldiers from the 2-82 Field Artillery, 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, place their bags on a truck as they prepare to board buses later in the evening to fly home to Fort Hood, Texas after being one of the last American combat units to exit from Iraq on December 15, 2011 at Camp Virginia, near Kuwait City, Kuwait. Today the U.S. military formally ended its mission in Iraq after eight years of war and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. 
National Journal
Patrick Tucker, Defense One
June 23, 2014, 7:02 a.m.

Su­per­man had X-ray vis­ion. Now, so does the United States mil­it­ary, in the form of an X-ray gun that can see through fab­ric, rub­ber and alu­min­um to find drugs, money, ex­plos­ive li­quids and even people. The re­cently re­leased X-ray gun is the first device of its kind that a sol­dier or would-be su­per­hero can hold in her hands. It’s about the size of a bread­box and works with the press of a but­ton, al­low­ing the user to ac­tu­ally see the out­line of or­gan­ic ma­ter­i­al bur­ied be­hind cloth, leath­er or even alu­min­um by run­ning the X-ray gun over the ma­ter­i­al and zap­ping it with low-level X-rays.

At a re­cent demon­stra­tion, the device could see through boxes, bags, car seats and air­plane wings to re­veal vari­ous or­gan­ic com­pounds — everything from bricks of sim­u­lated co­caine to pa­per, am­mo­nia and oth­er po­ten­tially ex­plos­ive ma­ter­i­als. Even a hand­ful of grapes. (De­fense One sup­plied some of the ma­ter­i­al to en­sure the ac­cur­acy of the test.)

Rep­res­ent­at­ives from Amer­ic­an Sci­ence and En­gin­eer­ing, or­AS&E would run the X-ray scan­ner, called the MINI Z, over the item and the im­age would show up on a Win­dows powered tab­let PC. Or­gan­ic com­pounds ap­peared bright white and dis­tinct from the dark in­or­gan­ic ma­ter­i­al.

The same com­pany makes the large, toll-booth like backs­cat­ter X-rays scan­ners you walk through at air­ports ““ the ones that have giv­en rise to re­cent con­tro­versy be­cause of the em­bar­rass­ing amount of de­tail they re­veal about a per­son’s body. They work in al­most the same as reg­u­lar X-rays. When you go to a doc­tor’s of­fice with a pos­sible broken rib, the doc­tor will shoot a high-powered beam of photons through your body. The photons pass through the soft tis­sue to a film, which is then de­veloped to re­veal frac­tures, car keys, staples or oth­er ab­nor­mal­it­ies. The photons get hung up on the parts of you that are more atom­ic­ally dense, like bones or metal­lic ob­jects.

Backs­cat­ter X-rays are less power­ful and don’t ac­tu­ally pen­et­rate deep in­to or­gan­ic tis­sue. In­stead, the photons of the beam hit the sur­face of or­gan­ic ma­ter­i­al and scat­ter and ri­co­chet, which is de­tec­ted by a sensor. The MINI Z can shoot these rays con­tinu­ously, as op­posed to tak­ing a single burst pic­ture like a Po­lar­oid One Shot.

“The abil­ity to con­tinu­ally gen­er­ate that X-ray beam is a big factor and a big change,” Joe Re­iss, vice pres­id­ent at AS&E, told De­fense One.

One of the ad­vant­ages of a hand­held X-ray gun is that it al­lows for quick, mul­tiple scans from dif­fer­ent angles. More pic­tures bet­ter re­veal ob­jects for what they are. For in­stance, dur­ing the demon­stra­tion, a mound of pa­per took sev­er­al swipes with scan­ner to be­come clear on the im­age.

The X-ray gun rep­res­ents a big in­nov­a­tion for shrink­ing the tubes that shoot the beams, bat­tery and oth­er ele­ments of X-ray tech. It took AS&E and their sup­pli­ers sev­en years to re­duce those form factors from truck-size, heat pro­du­cing ele­ments to something hand­held.

“You have to be able to cool [the X-ray device],” says Re­iss. “Our big­ger sys­tems have elab­or­ate cool­ing mech­an­isms to do that but they’re much high­er power.”

For in­stance, the MINI Z uses about ten watts of power. The com­pany’s van-sized X-ray ma­chine will use on the or­der of 3000 watts but can see deep­er at fur­ther dis­tances. “The ba­sic ima­ging con­cepts are the same,” said Re­iss. “The tradeoffs are dif­fer­ent. How much power do you want? How big can it be? How much does it cost?”

For the mil­it­ary, cost and port­ab­il­ity make the MINI Z an at­tract­ive new se­cur­ity cap­ab­il­ity for the Pentagon’s ar­sen­al. The MINI Z comes in at $50,000, or half the cost of a typ­ic­al air­port backs­cat­ter X-ray. But the most im­port­ant fea­ture, from a na­tion­al se­cur­ity per­spect­ive, is the sim­pli­city of use. You turn it on, point, shoot and get an im­age. It re­quires al­most no train­ing to op­er­ate. That’s key be­cause it’s not ne­ces­sar­ily U.S. sol­diers that will be us­ing it (though AS&E does count the De­fense De­part­ment as a cus­tom­er) so much as the for­eign sol­diers un­der U.S. tu­tel­age. Con­sider that in some coun­tries the U.S.mil­it­ary is arm­ing se­cur­ity forces made up of farm­ers and shep­herds who speak no Eng­lish but are trained to scan cars and people for opi­um, cash and ex­plos­ives.

While an X-ray blaster is a use­ful gad­get to have on the field, X-ray glasses would be far more so. Un­for­tu­nately, says Re­iss, those will be a while in com­ing. “Prac­tic­ally speak­ing, X-ray ima­ging is fairly ma­ture,” he says, mean­ing, es­sen­tially, the low-hanging fruit in in­nov­at­ing the tech­no­logy has already been picked. A suf­fi­ciently power­ful x-ray beam needs tubes of a cer­tain size and power. There is no Moore’s Law for shrink­ing X-ray tubes in the same way that you can make com­puters smal­ler, cheap­er and more power­ful by doub­ling the num­ber of tran­sist­ors you can squeeze onto an in­teg­rated cir­cuit. There is, however, still op­por­tun­ity to im­prove the cost and the size of the unit bey­ond its cur­rent lim­it­a­tions. The MINI Z uses a lith­i­um ion bat­tery and as im­prove­ments are made in bat­tery tech­no­logy, devices like it should be­ne­fit.

In the mean­time, the MINI Z could work with a vir­tu­al real­ity head­set like, say, the Oculus Rift to provide a con­vin­cing X-ray glasses ex­per­i­ence (if an Oculus Rift de­veloper felt up to the task.)

“It’s one of the first things we thought of for this,” says Re­iss. “There are a lot of com­ple­ment­ary tech­no­lo­gies.”

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