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SpectroDrone system uses lasers to detect explosives from afar

Up in the sky, it’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s… a drone that detects explosives with a laser. Robots are increasingly being used to make the world safer for humans. They can aid in construction, explore nuclear disaster sites, and even detect explosives and other dangerous materials. Now, a company called Laser Detect Systems is taking that mission to the air. It says the SpectroDrone system can spot explosives from a distance using its multi-wavelength laser.

This seems at first like something that should have already existed. With all the sophisticated sensors and technology at our disposal, why can’t we detect explosives from a distance? The most common methods of spotting explosives still rely on dogs to smell chemical compounds or machines that do the same thing via spectrometry. In general, spectrometry is the best way to figure out what something is made of, and that’s what the SpectroDrone system is doing, However, it’s doing it from much farther away.

Laser Detect Systems says that its proprietary package of sensors can operate at a distance, whereas past laser detection systems needed to be within a few millimeters of a sample. It does this with an array of electro-optical assemblies and laser beams of varying wavelengths. There’s a camera on the instrument package dedicated to aiming at the target. Then a laser rangefinder ensures the drone is close enough to get an accurate reading—it has a range of “several” meters. The laser illuminator is where all the magic happens. It bounces a signal off the target to look for hazardous materials.

According to Laser Detect Systems, the drone doesn’t need to be looking for explosives. The SpectroDrone can apparently spot other materials like narcotics, certain minerals, and even some biological compounds. It doesn’t matter if the material is solid, liquid, or gas. That’s a big claim when you’re talking about several meters of distance to the target. Interference from ambient light and the atmosphere is a serious hurdle to overcome.

The system is being demoed at a conference in Israel on an Airobotics Optimus drone, giving it an operation range of 3km (1.8 miles). The Optimus is not the sort of thing you’d pick up at Amazon. It’s an industrial-grade unmanned vehicle platform that was only announced a few months ago. The SpectroDrone system could be mounted to anything with enough carrying capacity — even a ground-based drone or the wall in an airport security checkpoint.

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