An Ex-Cop Talks With Xconomy About Using X-Rays to Scan Cars

5/5/09Follow @bvbigelow

When I met Steven W. Smith last week, the founder of Spectrum San Diego made a casual comment that might help explain why he’s focused his company on developing advanced security imaging systems.

Smith was explaining the technical advantages of Spectrum’s mainstay product—an ultra-high resolution video surveillance system—when he said: “Before I went to graduate school, I was a police officer for five years. And you always knew something had happened—somebody got beat up, for example. But the problem was figuring what exactly happened, and how, and who did it.”

Smith is an expert in digital signal processing and in using ultra-low level X-ray imaging to develop new inspection technologies. He has invented machines for inspecting canned goods and printed circuit boards. Yet lately he has been looking through law enforcement eyes at how such technologies can be used to help the police and military. Later this month, for example, Spectrum plans to unveil Smith’s most-ambitious project—an ultra-low dose X-ray machine capable of imaging explosives, contraband, and stowaways hidden inside cars and light trucks.

Steven W. Smith

Steven W. Smith

Of course, the other aspect of Smith’s story I found amazing is that while he was working as a uniformed police officer in Salt Lake City, UT, he also was getting his B.S. in physics at the University of Utah. He later got a Ph.D. in electrical engineering at the U of U before he began working to develop X-ray systems for such medical applications as detecting blocked arteries in the heart and calcium loss in bones.

Smith told me that as the director of research at San Diego-based IRT Corp. in the 1990s, he invented the Secure 1000, a machine that uses ultra-low radiation X-rays to conduct full-body scans that identify hidden weapons, explosives, and drugs at airports and checkpoints.

Smith founded Spectrum in 1998, after IRT was acquired by a subsidiary of OSI Systems, a diversified security technology company in Hawthorne, CA. In the beginning, Smith said he worked under contract to develop technology for other customers. But Smith said he changed his business model about five years ago to focus on developing his own proprietary technology. He’s raised about $5 million to fund the reincarnated company from a combination of private investors, friends, and family. Spectrum now has 11 employees.

In 2003, Spectrum introduced its first product, the ultra-high resolution SentryScope security surveillance system. The system Smith invented uses a digital line-scanning technique, similar to the technology used in spy satellites and Fax machines, with an extraordinary resolution of 10,000 pixels by 2,000 pixels. Priced at about $20,000 apiece, including installation, the all-digital system enables users to zoom in on any detail with enough resolution to identify faces and read license plates from 200 feet away.

In contrast, Smith told me conventional closed circuit TV surveillance systems operate like TV cameras and they provide video images with a resolution no better than 640 pixels by 480 pixels. The company has sold its SentryScope for use in embassies, security checkpoints, courthouses, football stadiums, and other public venues. As a result, Smith said an investigator with access to SentryScope’s digital imaging technology now stands a far better chance of figuring out what happened, and how, and who did it.

At Spectrum, Smith also developed the CastScope, a machine that uses ultra-low level X-rays to scan individuals who are wearing an arm or leg cast, or have an artificial limb. Like the Secure 1000, CastScope emits ultra-low dose X-rays that generate less than 10 micro Rems per scan (or about 3 percent of the natural background radiation of 300 micro Rems), a radiation standard that U.S. regulators established in 1991 for general-purpose security screening. CastScope was a post-9/11 innovation intended for screening airline passengers. Smith said Spectrum has delivered 35 units, priced at $50,000 apiece, to the U.S. Transportation Security Agency, and he sees a market for 2,000 or more in the next three to five years.

Using similar ultra-low level X-ray technology, Spectrum plans to introduce its CarScan technology at the government-sponsored Force Protection Equipment Demonstration conference that begins May 19 in Stafford, VA. Smith said the technology produces clearer images of interior compartments by combining two different types of X-ray emissions. The inspection rate also is faster because motorists remain inside the vehicle while it is being scanned as they slowly drive through a gateway.

“CarScan is a breakthrough technology for screening vehicles,” Smith said, because it combines his proprietary dual X-ray transmission system with advanced software algorithms that makes any organic material in a vehicle easier to see. The company says it will be priced at less than $1 million, and potential customers include military forces and any business or government agency concerned about car bombs, contraband, or illegal stowaways.

“An operator isn’t going to know if (the organic material) is a bomb or contraband, but they’ll know where to look,” said Rich Helstrom, Spectrum’s vice president of sales and marketing.

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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