A new intelligent software program developed by NUI Galway could give the airline industry a leg up in the security stakes.
The new application, Hazard IQ, has the ability to quickly and accurately detect substances such as explosives, medicines and illegal drugs.
Developed at the university by Dr Michael Madden, Department of Information Technology, and Dr Alan Ryder, Department of Chemistry and the National Centre for Biomedical Engineering Science, the software could be used in airport security screening, poison testing at accident and emergency departments, and forensics analysis.
The software works by using a method known as the Raman technique to build a library of substances according to their molecular fingerprint. Raman instruments are then used to identify suspect substances and their concentration, comparing them to the data in the library. Portable Raman detection equipment is smaller than a shoebox and can test bulk samples of a variety of materials.
The system combines Raman Spectroscopy, a laser-based method for the "chemical fingerprinting" of materials, and Machine Learning, which is a family of analysis techniques that improve with experience. "It is more subtle than a direct match," Dr Madden told ENN. "[The program] can figure out if it's a material in different concentration to what we have in the library."
For example, drugs may be diluted with cutting agents. Dr Madden explains that the software will still be able to identify the presence of the drug, regardless of the concentration. He also points out that being able to identify the cutting agents could help figure out who mixed the drugs and where they came from.
The applications for this new technology are widespread, including in the identification of illegal narcotics. The technique could also be used in ambulances to spot hazardous substances that children have swallowed, or unidentified pills.
In other applications, Hazard IQ could also help to restore travellers' faith in air travel by eliminating the need for a ban on substances such as liquids. This ban caused disruption at UK airports recently after an alleged terrorist plot bomb linked with hard-to-detect liquid explosives was foiled. "It certainly should help restore confidence," said Dr Madden. "It could help make people's life easier when they are travelling."
These new methods could be in use as early as next year. Dr Madden said the software is working, and that the university is currently in discussions with the manufacturers of Raman instruments.
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