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Stay ALERT – Don’t Get Hurt

Northeastern University researchers are paving the way for novel safety mechanisms for counter terrorism and healthcare screening.

Northeastern has been sharpening its research focus with multiple research centers throughout the University. One of these, the Awareness and Localization of Explosives-Related Threats (ALERT), is investigating the use of advanced wave propagation techniques to detect explosive threats at safe standoff distances. ALERT is a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Center of Excellence founded in 2008 and led by Northeastern University, but it also includes over 10 Partner Institutions from around the globe as well as other industry and national lab collaborators. One of the goals of ALERT is to transition technology from “research to realitAn important contributor to the ALERT center is Jose Martinez Lorenzo, who is the director of The Multi-wave Sensing, Imaging, Control and Actuation Laboratory. He is an Assistant Professor with an interdisciplinary appointment in Mechanical and Industrial Engineering and Electrical and Computer Engineering at Northeastern. Prof. Martinez states, “The emphasis of my research is on solving the complex problem of detecting and finding targets in a cluttered environment. Whether that target is a tumor or an explosive, it involves a similar process for wave propagation analysis.” The lab takes a traditional three-tier approach to solving these problems. First the detailed science is defined through computational models and novel signal processing algorithms. Next a prototype is used to validate the fundamental science. Finally, a demonstration system is built to solve the problem in a realistic environment. In terms of the fundamental science, Dr. Martinez’s team is using poly-modal data from a combination of electromagnetic waves, acoustic waves, and thermo-acoustic waves to maximize the probability of cluttered environment threat detection and minimize the probability of a false alarm. Dr. Martinez added, “When the test results match the fundamental science simulation and modelling, it is extremely rewarding to know all the hard work paid off.”

These techniques have broad applications in society and can be used for real time imaging for security threats, breast tumor detection, and classification of skin burns in a non-contact sensor to name just a few. In addition to the DHS, Dr. Martinez has received funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Office (DARPA) to investigate wave propagation and how it can benefit these organizations’ missions and society as a whole. Imagine traveling some day at your local airport where you no longer have to wait in line to walk through an individual scanning device, but instead the entire walkway leading to the airport gates acts as a real time security portal. This type of approach may be possible and would certainly make secure travel more comfortable and less intrusive.

When Dr. Martinez took a 7-month sabbatical at Northeastern from his home country of Spain, he didn’t realize that it would turn into a longer term stay. Nine years later he is running research efforts to overcome the tough engineering problems that may very well change the world and make it a safer place. Maximizing the information transfer efficiency that is required to do the real time imaging requires a careful plan, which is sustained by the use of the latest electronic test instrumentation, novel signal processing algorithms, and advanced sensors. The latter include electromagnetic structures made of dispersive meta-materials, vortex lenses, and compressive reflectors capable of achieving a multi-scale codification of the information, ranging over scales from sub-millimeters to tens of meters.

Keysight’s Instrumentation Role

Dr. Martinez depends upon accurate high end test equipment like Keysight’s PNA-X and ENA Network Analyzers to gather and analyze the data from the various wave sources. “Eventually I would love to see these instruments have up to 128 ports to meet all of my planned research needs. Analyzing the various kinds of information is a multi-dimensional challenge,” added Dr. Martinez. The Keysight gear that Dr. Martinez leverages is also used by many Northeastern students as well as by other Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) programs at the school.

Some of the biggest challenges that Dr. Martinez faces in his research is keeping up with the data collection and integration required across all multi-scale wavelengths of interest. He envisions smart structures and hybrid-materials to help address some of his challenges in the future. “If we are ever able to integrate all the current requirements into a single system that would be a game changer to help solve many of our current challenges.”

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