QinetiQ, Thermo Scientific Collaborate to Equip Explosive-Sniffing Robots with Smart Sensors
Chemically fueled improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are one of the deadliest hazards to soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, and incidents like the Oklahoma City bombing and the Sarin gas attack in Tokyo have demonstrated that civilians, too, can be the targets of chemicals and explosives. Now two organizations with Massachusetts roots are collaborating to offer a tool to protect professionals trying to identify explosives and other hazardous and toxic substances.
The Wilmington, MA-based Ahura sensor division of Thermo Fisher Scientific and the mobile robot division of QinetiQ North America, acquired in 2004 from Waltham, MA-based Foster-Miller, are equipping QinetiQ’s Talon robots with a powerful chemical detector. Ahura developed the laser-based instrument, called “FirstDefender RMX,” as a handheld device, and appropriately enough, the Talon robot carries the sensor on its gripper arm.
Sold to military organizations, bomb squads, police, hazmat specialists, and fire departments, the robot-sensor combination can quickly identify suspicious chemicals from a library of more than 10,000 substances, including explosives, toxic industrial materials, and chemical-warfare agents, according to the companies.
Foster-Miller introduced the Talon in 2000. The model, which carries the FirstDefender RMX, costs about $100,000, with options such as a gas and radiation detector kit adding to the cost; the Ahura sensor package costs an additional $50,000 to $65,000.
But despite the serious price tag, demand for the combined product is strong, especially because of the growing IED threat, says Duane Sword, vice president of marketing and international sales at Thermo Fisher Scientific. The total cost of $200,000 to $250,000 for a FirstDefender-equipped Talon is “a small price to pay for saving just one soldier from getting injured or worse,” Sword says.
Ahura’s FirstDefender sensor proved itself in the field last Christmas Day, when it was used by the Warren, MI, fire department at Detroit’s Metropolitan Airport to confirm that the substance that the notorious “underwear bomber” had attempted to ignite on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 was a chemical called PETN.
Founded in 2002, Ahura specializes in the development of rugged, ultra-compact, field-enabled optical systems for the immediate identification and verification of liquid and solid chemicals. Using a “point and shoot” laser, the FirstDefender RMX system can identify chemicals through sealed glass or plastic containers, protecting personnel from exposure to harmful substances. If you can see the substance with your eyes, Sword says, the instrument can identify it.
To develop its technology, Ahura raised venture funding totaling $29.5 million from venture capital firms that include Arch Venture Partners, Castile Ventures, Fuse Capital and GF Private Equity Group and LLC. Thermo Fisher Scientific acquired the company in February.
The idea for putting FirstDefender sensors on board the Talon came from military and civilian customers who have been using the two systems separately in the field for years, Sword says. The sensor device is installed on the Talon’s gripper arm, and both the robot and the chemical sensors can be operated through the robot’s main remote-control command console. The FirstDefender package can be removed from the Talon and used as a standalone portable device when required.
Remote control is efficient up to 1,000 meters (about 3,300 feet). The Talon carries cameras—including night vision—so that the person who controls the device can see where the robot is going and what is ahead.
QinetiQ North America, a defense and homeland security firm with more than 6,400 employees and more than a billion dollars in annual revenue, says that the Talon can move as fast as a running soldier, climb stairs, and plow through snow. The robot is also durable. One was blown off the roof of a Humvee in Iraq. It plunged into the river below, but later soldiers used its remote control unit to drive it back out of the river for retrieval, QinetiQ says.
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