During a golf tournament at Pebble Beach, a mathematics professor from the Naval Postgraduate School and his cousin, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of California-Santa Cruz, pondered a tactical security problem: suicide bombers.
“Could we build a handheld radar that could determine if anyone down there was wearing a suicide vest,” asked Dr. William “Bill” Fox, while the pair watched a crowd of about 100 at the golf course.
“Yeah, I think we could,” John Vesecky replied, and thus embarking the pair on scientific exploration.
It was 2008 then, and after two years of collaborative research, they’d done it.
Using a Doppler radar gun similar to what’s used by police to measure vehicle speeds, and mathematical models developed by Fox, the research team was able to detect a person wearing wires simulating a suicide vest beneath their clothes at 25 meters.
It works because the radar cross-section of a person wearing metal wires is different than those without, a difference sensed through mathematical analysis of the cross-sections.
“Think of the scanning device at the airport, if we wait until the bomber gets there to catch them and they detonate, it’s too late, you’re still going to have massive casualties,” Fox said. “But if you can catch them while they’re crossing the street to the terminal you can limit the damage.”
The Navy patented the invention in Fox’s name in 2012, but he didn’t stop there.
Early tests with a radar prototype showed an 85 percent accuracy rate, but Fox created five more metrics that increase detection success to 97 percent. They also developed a system of systems approach that would further eliminate false positives.
“The entire NFL wanted to buy whatever came out. They were going to use it to scan the parking lots at the stadiums,” Fox said. “I had security agencies from 10 countries contact me; they were ready to buy it.”
Unfortunately, the Silicon Valley startup then prepared to commercialize the technology lost interest after Fox declined to leave teaching and become a corporate officer.
Fox, 68, retired from the Navy school and is now teaching in Virginia. Last week he told TechLink he is willing to help a business turn the invention into a new product because the threat remains.
On December 11, 2017, Akayed Ullah, a 27-year-old Bangladeshi man inspired by the Islamic State group, entered a busy New York City subway and detonated a suicide bomb made with Christmas lights. He was the only person seriously injured by the bomb and was indicted for terrorism.
TechLink, the Department of Defense’s national partnership intermediary, is marketing the technology to businesses who can develop it into a product.
“The risk of suicide bombers is still real, and this technology is still viable,” said Brian Metzger, senior technology manager at TechLink. “And Dr. Fox’s commitment to seeing it become a product means there’s still an opportunity.”
(The views expressed in this article are those of the sources’ alone and do not represent the official position of the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.)