01 February 2003
Hide and seek
Baghdad, Iraq-United Nations (UN) inspectors have been in Iraq for some time now and for the first time since 1998. They're toting an array of gadgets and technologies aimed at sniffing out the faintest signs of banned weapons.
The presumption of nearly all governments and those with sophisticated security apparatuses is that Baghdad has taken full advantage of the four-year layoff to revive efforts to develop long-range missiles and chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons.
Four years is an eternity in the high-tech world. Scientists and inspectors have made huge strides in perfecting the tools to uncover signs of these weapons. They will rely on such items as tamperproof surveillance cameras, air samplers, motion detectors, heat sensors, and radiation detection equipment.
The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) pointed to four areas of weapons inspection advances: satellite imagery, ground penetrating radar, chemical detection, and radiation detection.
DETECT THE CLANDESTINE
The UN procures commercial satellite images, which became available in 1999, and will likely receive more sophisticated, classified images from the U.S. and other intelligence sources. These images can help identify which facilities to inspect and plan the searches.
The U.S. is probably also sharing classified hyperspectral imagery, a new technology that differentiates between hundreds of colors and can detect trace pollutants emitted by clandestine biological or chemical weapons facilities.
All the various components of the earth's surface reflect and absorb energy in both the visible and nonvisible portions of the electromagnetic spectrum. Each distinct compound such as a mineral, plant, or man-made material has a unique composition, which generates a unique spectral signature.
Hyperspectral sensors can detect and differentiate a wide variety of compounds well beyond the capabilities of the human eye or other visual imaging devices.
"The Iraqis have a fair idea of what facilities look like to regular satellite cameras," John Pike, director of nonprofit defense policy group Globalsecurity.org, told WSJ.
"But if they don't have hyperspectral technology, they wouldn't know that one of their hidden labs was readily visible to a hyperspectral sensor."
Though still in infancy, hyperspectral technology industrial and private sector applications are already numerous.
Geological uses include the mapping of minerals and rock types for mineral and hydrocarbon exploration. Agriculture and forestry scientists employ hyperspectral for vegetation-type identification, assessment of vegetative stress, crop yield, and resource monitoring.
Environmental engineers leverage the technology in the detection of spills, in baseline studies, and for land use planning. Cartographers use it in marine applications for bathymetry, water quality studies, and mapping shoreline materials. Civil engineers apply it to transportation corridors and city planning.
BREAK UP INTO COMPONENTS
Powerful radar systems that can penetrate the ground will likely search for underground tunnels or hidden weapons. These systems, mounted on helicopters or fixed-wing aircraft, can detect objects as deep as 10 meters below the ground.
This technology can find something like a Scud missile in an underground silo.
The UN used ground-penetrating radar mounted on helicopters in its previous round of inspections. However, technical advances since then will enable the systems to process information about 10 times faster this time around. That means clearer and more certain detection.
Gas chromatography and ion mobility spectrometry (IMS; see article at www.isa.org/InTech/ionmobility) will likely see use in Iraq also. Chromatographs separate air, water, or soil samples into their basic chemical components within minutes. IMS equipment detects chemical agents in gas samples in seconds.
These systems can detect lethal chemicals such as sarin or mustard gas. Another instrument analyzes biological materials to detect such threats as glanders or the plague. A third system detects toxic industrial compounds that could threaten water or food supplies.
Tom Gluodenis, Agilent Technologies' market development manager for homeland security, said the decades-old technology has become faster, more accurate, and easier to use during the past 10 years. IMS technology has improved in terms of portability, reliability, and ruggedness in recent years.
The International Atomic Energy Agency, which is leading the nuclear inspections, plans to use two new gadgets: "the Ranger," a handheld scope that can detect and identify gamma radiation, and "Alex," a compact machine that can tell whether a metal object is a potential nuclear component. Quantrad Sensor Inc. in Madison, Wis., makes both devices.
Quantrad's vice president of marketing, Cathy Schaub, said the Ranger gives the inspectors two distinct advantages: It can be operated with little training, and it identifies "bad isotopes"-those found in weapons-almost immediately.
She told WSJ, "Within 60 seconds, it will tell you not only if there is an isotope-it also has a neutron detector, which will tell you exactly what isotope it is."
In the past, separate tests for detection and identification were required, a process that could take several hours to several weeks. IT
Nicholas Sheble writes and edits the Sensors department. Write him at email@example.com.
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