ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. -- While on patrol in hostile territory, a platoon discovers a suspicious device, and an explosive ordnance disposal technician is called to investigate. The technician examines the device without touching it, using new light-weight portable X-ray technology to see inside. X-ray imaging confirms that the item is an improvised explosive device.
For Soldiers responsible for detecting and identifying hazardous explosive devices in the field, the system must be light enough to carry and rugged enough to withstand extreme battlefield environments. Commercial-off-the-shelf systems do not always meet these requirements. For example, X-ray panels are often too fragile and heavy for dismounted EOD teams to carry and use in harsh environments.
Through an academia-government-industry partnership, a new flexible digital X-ray detector that supports lightweight, rugged X-ray imaging panels was developed to meet the Army's requirements.
"Imagine Soldiers jumping out of a helicopter with basically a photo copier strapped on their backs," said Dr. Eric Forsythe, physicist at the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Army Research Laboratory. "We needed to develop a lightweight, rugged, flexible x-ray imager that Soldiers, particularly in the EOD community, could use."
The project, which was partially funded by the Army ManTech program, focused on flexible display technology. ManTech teamed with industry and the Flexible Electronics and Display Center, which was established in 2004 at Arizona State University, to develop manufacturing technologies for emerging Department of Defense-specific display needs.
In 2011, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency reached out to CCDC ARL to leverage Display Center technology for flexible X-ray imaging. Alternative technology was necessary because analog film was no longer viable and glass-based imagers were too large to easily transport.
To mature the ability to manufacture this specialty imaging technology, the ManTech program invested in a bond and release manufacturing process for X-ray imaging. By building on the bond and release process that is used in commercial displays, the ManTech program delivered Digital Radiography panels that the EOD community, other government organizations and the commercial industry could use.
In one example, ManTech teamed with the Xerox-Palo Alto Research Center, which is funded by DTRA, to build the electronics, software and algorithms to integrate the panels into a system specifically for the EOD community.
"The project, which began as a prototype, is a great example of how the Army uses prototypes to answer key questions -- does it meet a need, and can it be manufactured in a viable environment," Forsythe said.
The prototypes were developed by Arizona State University and tested by Soldiers inside and outside the continental U.S. The Soldiers tested the prototypes to evaluate if they met the Army's portability and functional requirements and if the X-ray imagers on plastic had the same resolution as those with glass. From 2011 to the present, the flexible X-ray program has been advancing the Army-developed manufacturing technology. The technology has transitioned to industry, and prototypes purchased from a commercial supplier will be evaluated in an upcoming test.
The EOD community may soon be routinely using this new X-ray technology to collect images that can determine and establish hidden threats in suspicious packages or devices in a variety of situations and scenarios. To meet this need, the imager must: be very thin, lightweight and rugged; be simple to use; not have moving parts; produce high quality images very quickly; see through a variety of materials and thicknesses.
"The goal is to improve the imaging capability of bomb technicians without forcing them to become X-ray technicians," said Robert Woods, program manager at the DTRA Combating Terrorism Division.
Work has continued through the Defense-wide Manufacturing Science and Technology-funded flexible hybrid electronics manufacturing innovation institute, NextFlex, in partnership with the Office of the Secretary of Defense-wide Manufacturing Technology flexible X-ray manufacturing program and DTRA programs. The strategy is to utilize this Department of Defense program partnership to combine the best features of digital radiography with the best features of flexible electronic circuit boards radiography. Another objective is to commercialize a flexible imager that will resemble a sheet of plastic and be fully flexible.
"The added partnership with NextFlex helps ensure the fully-flexible X-ray program delivers the critical warfighter technology needed to support EOD," said Tracy Frost, director of the DoD Manufacturing Technology Program.
Long-term plans include securing a domestic company to manufacture the flexible X-ray imagers.
"This has been a great partnership between the Army, ARL, the Army ManTech program, CCDC, DTRA, OSD, academia and industry," Forsythe said. "We anticipate a significant cost savings for the Army by leveraging the commercial industrial base."
The U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command (CCDC), formerly known as the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command (RDECOM), has the mission to lead in the discovery, development and delivery of the technology-based capabilities required to make Soldiers more lethal to win our Nation's wars and come home safely. The command collaborates across the Future Force Modernization Enterprise and its own global network of domestic and international partners in academia, industry and other government agencies to accomplish this mission. CCDC is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Futures Command.