Scanning for trouble; company develops detector

Posted: Tuesday, September 13, 2005


  Photo by Chris Eshleman, Homer News Colleen Riley, the president and CEO of Kachemak Research Design, stands in front of the prototype of her company's system that scans the underside of vehicles for explosives.

Photo by Chris Eshleman, Homer News

Colleen Riley, the president and CEO of Kachemak Research Design, stands in front of the prototype of her company's system that scans the underside of vehicles for explosives.

Checking the bottom of trucks for bombs has come a long way since the now-ancient "mirror-on-a-stick" method.

Because of Kachemak Research Development, an East End Road-based technology company, local engineers are getting their chance to help make the dangerous job of locating potential explosives safer.

In February, the company was awarded a contract from the U.S. Department of Defense to design a machine that will be able to inspect the underside of a car or truck for bombs while keeping people at a safe distance.

According to president and CEO Colleen Riley, three company engineers are expected to finish building a prototype during the first year of the five-year contract — one year earlier than scheduled.

"We're about three to six months ahead of schedule, which is pretty incredible for a small company," Riley said.

Kachemak Research Development has been in Homer since 2001, but Riley founded it three years earlier while directing Research Project Development at Utah State University. She had visited Homer and, like many who see Kachemak Bay for the first time, fell in love with the view. She and her husband, Larry, bought property here in 1996.

"That's why I started the company, so we could move here," Riley said.

Riley, whose master's degree is in English, is an entrepreneur in the field of technology. Her company currently employs six people, including three engineers, and hosted a summer intern from the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

In 1998, Riley left her post at the College of Engineering at Utah State University after having just established a long-term program there, the Intelligent Mobility Program, designing robotic navigation systems for the U.S. Army. Upon leaving the university to run the program itself, Riley remained working as a subcontractor for the school.

According to Jack Brown, a business management developer for the Kenai Peninsula Borough, she has since made KRD into the only woman-owned, tech-based company on the peninsula.

Riley's mobile under-vehicle inspection system, called a MUVIS, is 22-feet long and runs two digital cameras, mounted side by side, along the underbelly of vehicles. The cameras face upward and record two images, which the system's computers display side by side, showing a car's muffler, axle and other parts. At the same time, two fish-eye lens cameras mounted on the system's sides record images of the inside of the car's wheel wells.

Inside the company's East End Road offices, KRD's project team tests its prototype on a 10-foot-long, 18-inch-high table.

The table's underside is littered with Styrofoam, Coke cans and other objects.

After the cameras slide along the 10-foot-long fixed track, two images flash side by side onto a nearby computer screen. Engineers can easily identify objects down to 1/16 of an inch — making it easy not only to identify a soda can, but also to read the writing and make out the head of a screw holding it to the table.

The system is designed so people inspecting the underside of trucks, for example, are kept a safe distance away — maybe 300 or 400 feet — from potential bombs, Riley said. If inspectors see something suspicious, they can stop the vehicle and have it pull over.

"So the purpose is to save lives," she said.

A number of systems already are built for inspecting vehicles, but when company engineers looked at them, they realized the market still had plenty of room for growth, said Brandon Wilson, a 26-year-old electrical engineer with KRD.

Some use digital cameras, and others are "fixed" inspection systems, meaning the cameras are anchored in one spot, and the car or truck pulls over them.

Existing systems, however, have a number of problems. First, they aren't mobile, and vehicles need to be brought to them, Riley said. KRD's camera system is built on a trailer, which can be towed to different locations.

"So in Iraq, for example, they can take it from place to place," she said.

Second, the fixed cameras on existing systems mean a car or truck has to "drive over" the cameras, and the image can become blurry if the driver goes too fast.

The MUVIS, on the other hand, slides the cameras under the car, leaving the person operating the system in control. A typical scan takes less than one minute.

Third, current systems only offer a collage of many pictures from a scan.

"When we started this project, we were wondering — are we really offering something that isn't being offered now?" Wilson said. "We later realized there was no system that exists (and) puts all three together into one image."

Engineers are working on a way to "stitch" the system's two pictures together to provide a single, scanned look at a truck's undercarriage.

Even without that option, Riley said officials from the Department of Defense were pleased with the team's progress during a recent trip to her office.

"We've exceeded the department's expectations with what we can do with the quality of images," she said.

The system also could have other uses. Riley said she was sitting next to a drug enforcement agent on a plane recently and described the system to him.

He said drug agents could use it to look for drug-smuggling operations.

"He said, 'When it's ready, let us know — we'd like to come and look at it," she said.

The system also could be used by immigration officials during border checks, she said.

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