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PNNL technology shapes new generation of security tools

Twenty years ago, the average person gave little or no thought to their personal safety while attending a live concert or riding the subway. Following 9/11 that all changed, and government – and industry – took immediate action to protect citizens from and prevent future terrorist events.

Seeing an opportunity to make a difference, California-based SafeView, Inc. tapped into Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s intellectual property base to create a revolutionary security system. Leveraging a government-funded development using millimeter wave technology, Safeview invented an imaging system for screening individuals in crowded environments where terrorists typically try to carry out their deadly work.

PNNL’s millimeter wave technology was designed to rapidly identify hidden weapons, explosives and other contraband—even plastic, ceramic and other non-metallic weapons—through clothing. Originally developed in the 70s as a nondestructive evaluation technology for nuclear reactors, millimeter wave technology caught the attention of the FAA, which saw the technology's potential for scanning people passing through airports; the FAA began funding research in 1989.

As one of the first licensees of the technology, SafeView created a holographic imaging system, called the SafeScout, which looks much like a conventional metal detector. The scanner projects ultrahigh frequency, low-powered radio waves onto the front and back of the person being screened. These waves—known as millimeter or centimeter waves because they have wavelengths of about one centimeter—penetrate clothing and bounce off the person and the items he or she may be carrying. A sensor array captures the reflected waves and sends the information to a high-speed image-processing computer. The computer analyzes the information and produces a high-resolution, three-dimensional or holographic image from the signals allowing an operator to see suspicious materials.

The SafeScout system is distinctly different from other surveillance systems that rely on metal detectors, X-ray imaging and in some cases, strip searches. Metal detectors cannot screen for plastic or ceramic weapons, plastic explosives or other non-metallic contraband, while X-ray imaging subjects people to potentially harmful ionizing radiation. Millimeter wave technology offers enormous potential for use in points of entry for mass transit systems, border crossings, military bases, and public arenas…making it the wave of future security.

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