A COMPANY specializing in making lightweight x-ray machines for hospitals is using the same technology to design bomb-detecting robots for counter-terrorist and security forces.
Adelaide company Micro-X has won a contract with the Department of Defence to demonstrate the technology for stand-off imaging of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs).
Micro-X has moved its headquarters from Victoria to South Australia in preparation for the production of its core product, mobile x-ray machines for the medical industry.
It also has a contract with the Department of Defence to demonstrate a mobile x-ray unit prototype to be used in portable army hospitals and by “shock trauma platoons” on the edge of battle zones.
Managing Director Peter Rowland said Micro-X had successfully produced an 80kg mobile x-ray machine – just a fraction of the size and weight of the 500-600kg machines traditionally used in hospitals.
He said Micro-X had the rights to apply technology from a company in the United States that was commercializing the carbon nanotubes as the electron emitter within the x-ray tube.
“In one of these 600kg monsters, the x-ray tube itself weighs about 26kg and if you think about holding that over a bed safely you need a vertical and horizontal support arm that’s quite strong and a cart that’s quite strong,” Rowland said.
“By comparison, our tube is one kilogram and is about the size of a large grapefruit. Our task has been to reduce the size of the overall cart in the same ratio. “
The first units for the medical industry are expected to be in production for sale towards the end of the year, while the demonstration for the Department of Defence will be mid-year.
The variant models would have a slightly higher-powered tube and a greater ground clearance to help cope with more rugged terrain.
The IED detector unit is scheduled for demonstration early next year.
“We’re trying to accelerate it if we can but it’s a work in progress … but the potential market for it is extensive,” Rowland said.
“At the moment, when they come across an IED in a military environment such as Afghanistan or in a civilian environment like a suspicious bag in an airport they x-ray it because they’ve got to find out what it is, how dangerous it is, where it came from and how they are going to make it safe so x-ray is their friend.
“The problem is with what they are using is that to get the x-ray you have to take the unit up to the device and put an imaging plate behind it. Sometimes you can’t get the plate behind it without disturbing it and sometimes there’s a guy watching with a pair of binoculars and a mobile phone and he’s just waiting for the person to lean over the top before he detonates it … so they’re desperate to find what’s called stand-off technologies where they don’t have to put someone in harm’s way and they can still find out what’s inside the package.”
Rowland said the technology Micro-X used in its lightweight x-ray machines was ideally suited for backscatter imaging.
“It’s kind of just like what Superman used to do where you can just look at something and you can see inside it – you don’t need to get the imaging plate behind.
“We’ve concepted something for them that is small, you could put it on a little trolley or robot and you just drive it up and it shows you what’s inside without the need for anyone to go anywhere near it and that got them seriously excited.
“While the backscatter technology exists, because it uses a conventional x-ray tube and not a carbon nanotube source the thing is giant so the idea that we’ve got something that would fit on a one metre long robot and go up and interrogate a small parcel is groundbreaking for them.”