A patent-pending device developed by a U of M engineering student may help in the
fight against terrorism and improve airport security.
By Sara Hoover
At one time, only Superman possessed x-ray vision, but today the Man of Steel’s powers
are becoming more widely available. Of course, still only to be used for the benefit
Electrical engineering doctoral student Orges Furxhi has built a device, known as
a spatially selective mask, that forms real-time images in terahertz or sub-millimeter
waves. These waves can penetrate through man-made materials such as clothing to find
concealed weapons or harmful chemicals like explosives. While Furxhi is not the first
to create a device that has the ability to see through objects or material, his achieves
aspects that others do not.
Furxhi’s dissertation is streamlining the x-ray vision process to be simpler, cost-effective
and in real-time. His contribution of a spinning disc imager was key.
“The scanning is done by the spinning disc, which contains holes,” says Furxhi (MS
’07). “The plurality of the holes allows energy to go through and be measured. The
holes scan the image and after we collect the measurement data, we can reconstruct
the image. It helps in two aspects: the multi-holes make (the device) smaller and
also allow more energy to go through. We can reconstruct the image very quickly, so
image reconstruction is practically in real time.”
What can be detected depends on the frequency, but at sub- millimeter wave frequencies,
the device can identify explosives and metal, all the while seeing through man-made
material like cloth.
One capability is standoff imaging — the ability to detect something from a distance.
The military could use it to detect IEDs (improvised explosive devices) or hidden
explosives, and bombs hidden on a person’s body. Vehicles with the device would be
able to detect explosives placed on the ground as well as wires, so soldiers would
be able to stop beforehand to investigate. Airport security or places where large
groups of people are going is another purpose. This type of device would not require
each person to go through the same portal, which is the current standard.
|The spinning disc in action, which will ultimately help detect concealed weapons or
guide helicopters to safety by seeing through kicked up dust and debris.
Another application is to help helicopter pilots see through the dust that’s lifted
up when helicopters are trying to land, known as the brownout condition. With the
pilot’s view obstructed, the helicopter can crash. These frequencies allow the pilot
to see through the dust to where he’s landing.
The project began in 2006 when Dr. Eddie Jacobs, assistant professor of electrical
and computer engineering in the Herff College of Engineering, asked Furxhi to figure
out why previous sensor research didn’t work.
“I was involved in a DARPA-sponsored (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) program
to develop terahertz and sub-millimeter sensors for the detection of explosives and
weapons,” says Jacobs. “I stumbled across some research that had been done back in
the early ’70s that seemed applicable to this problem. I asked Orges to take a look
and implement it. He easily concluded it wasn’t a terribly practical way of doing
things. In the process, he suggested several improvements that could be made to the
system, which could make it very practical. That started what he’s done now, which
led to the University applying for patents.”
In its final form, the device will make an image on a computer monitor of whatever
is in the field of view, much like a digital camera. The device will scan the body
rapidly and take frames and look like a normal video on a TV screen. Jacobs believes
they’re a year from the first images.
The device is patent-pending and caught the attention of the corporation Princeton
Nanotechnologies Systems while Furxhi and Jacobs were doing a conference presentation
“They have an option to license the patent on the condition they will submit grants
to further develop this technology,” says Furxhi. “So whenever they apply for a grant
that could benefit from this technology, they are to use this device as part of their
overall larger device. When they do that, they have to contract us to do the work.
That’s where we’re hoping to get some funding in the next year or so.”
|Doctoral student Orges Furxhi with his prototype device, which can see through man-made
material such as cloth to detect metal or chemical explosives.
The partnership is beneficial for the project, but also for the University as a whole.
“Companies like that have options surrounding them as far as university partners,”
says Kevin Boggs, director of technology transfer and research development in the
FedEx Institute of Technology. “When they choose to get on an airplane and go anywhere,
we’re thrilled that it’s us instead of one of the universities closer to them. Having
those companies say to the world, ‘We’re benefiting from a partnership with the University
of Memphis,’ is a great thing.”
The University has also been contracted by the corporate partner to work on the optics
of a terahertz spectrometer device they’re developing. Currently, samples need to
be placed in front of the spectrometer for it to identify the chemical signatures.
With Furxhi’s help, the range of detection will be expanded and the device can be
used at a distance and pointed at a building, for example. This modification would
give those in the field the ability to quickly determine whether explosive materials
are detected in a targeted area or not. He also plans to incorporate his spinning
disc imager into the device so material will not only be identified, but also form
The ability to form an image on these different devices raises the question of privacy
— one Furxhi and Jacobs aren’t ready to answer.
“What we want to do is see through (material), and then others will have to worry
about if they should or shouldn’t see,” says Furxhi.
“You will be seen naked. That’s an issue. It’s not one I’m prepared to solve. It’s
something that we as a nation will have to decide,” adds Jacobs. “Is it so important
that we keep people from getting on planes with bombs that we forego that particular
aspect of personal privacy, at least to get on airplanes, which in almost all cases
is an optional activity? I think it will get decided in the courts or by law.”
Jacobs points out there are two types of applications for this technology. One is
making an image to look for objects through material, like clothing. Another is to
find objects of interest and figure out whether they are explosive or not. Common
plastic explosives have different colors of terahertz light, giving them unique spectral
signatures. Terahertz waves can be used to recognize whether something is explosive
or non-explosive. The second application — looking at objects in light spectrums —
doesn’t have the privacy issues surrounding it.
While the privacy issues are a potential concern, there are no known harmful health
effects associated with the imaging, an advantage that would make it safer than subjecting
people to other types of scans. This type of imaging is non-ionizing, meaning it does
not cause cell damage whereas ionizing imaging, like x-rays, do and can put people
at risk of cancer.
The research will benefit the community at large, but is a learning opportunity as
“It’s given me experience in this field,” say Furxhi, who never worked on a project
like this before. “If you want to put together a device in this field, you have to
work with a whole lot of different people. I’ve had to learn optics, electromagnetic
theory, electronics, mechanics, how to make things balance and machine work on how
to build things.”
Those weren’t the only skills he learned either.
“We are training engineers,” says Jacobs. “Their marketability in our profession boils
down to experience and working on a practical project that has real-world benefits.
The big plus here is not only did we solve a very practical engineering problem, we
were able to obtain something unique and patentable and so Orges has had the experience
of going through the patent process. He’s also been working with the commercial interests
in setting up the contractual arrangements between us and the University. All that
is going to make him a much more marketable engineer.”
Originally from Albania, Furxhi, 27, came to Memphis his senior year of high school
on an exchange program and graduated from Collierville High School.
“I was very, very lucky to come here because I’ve been funded ever since I started
at (the U of M). I’ve been teaching. The department’s been very supportive.”
The impact on security measures is the creation of a device that is inexpensive, easy
to manufacture, “doesn’t require lots of highly skilled engineering and will perform
the task that we want it to perform,” according to Jacobs.
“It’s a great example of pure science and engineering turning into something that
can really make, starting with soldiers and then others, safer,” says Boggs. “It was
a creative leap apparently on Orges’ part on this device. I don’t know how he did
it. I think working hard, being creative, taking your ideas seriously are what it
takes for these things to happen.”