Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal
Jake Deuel, Justin Garretson and Scott Gladwell are quickly becoming bomb technicians’ best friends.
The trio of Sandia National Laboratories researchers has developed a software package that greatly reduces the amount of time a bomb tech spends determining what’s inside the “package” they’ve been called to examine. It also speeds up the process the techs use to disarm a potentially lethal bomb.
And when that package is “ticking,” every second counts.
In 2009, Sandia was approached by the Department of Energy about developing a uniform software package specifically designed for use in the field by Explosive Ordnance Disposal teams, said Garretson, the lead developer of what has become known as the X-Ray Toolkit, or XTK.
Among the earliest users of XTK was Kirtland Air Force Base’s 377th Explosive Ordnance Disposal Flight, a unit charged with handling bomb threats in New Mexico, southern Colorado and eastern Arizona – or anywhere in the world they’re needed.
Tech Sgt. William Crisp, an EOD team leader who has been in the bomb-handling business for 14 years, explained that a team responding to a potential bomb typically uses a portable X-ray system to see what’s inside the “package,” which can be anything from old military munitions to sophisticated “pressure cooker” bombs like the ones that killed three and maimed hundreds at the 2013 Boston Marathon. They’ve even found bombs disguised as grease guns.
Although two parts of the X-ray system – the unit that produces the X-rays and the one that processes the images – are somewhat standardized, each system had different software for the laptop computers, the critical third element of the system.
“The problem was, each manufacturer developed its own software, which led to a huge learning curve” for bomb techs, Crisp said. “It was like constantly switching between Windows, Mac OS X and Linux.”
Exacerbating the problem was that most of the X-ray software had been developed for medical applications rather than bomb techs.
The varying software also affected interoperability, the ability for one OED team to interact with and assist other teams, Crisp said. It wasn’t unusual for techs to have to learn several different software packages to remain proficient.
Learning from the techs
With funding from the DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration – which has a focus on responding to nuclear terrorism threats – and the Defense Department’s Combatting Terrorist Technical Support Office, Sandia’s Robotics & Security Systems division began meeting with numerous EOD technicians to find out what they needed to better accomplish their mission.
“Rather than having a lot of features all at once, we started with something really basic,” said Gladwell, principal member of the division’s technical staff. “Then we’d add capabilities over time as the users provided feedback.”
Gladwell said the XTK developers worked closely with EOD techs each step of the way, adding whatever features they found helpful and omitting any deemed superfluous.
By late 2010, the first version of XTK was in the hands of a select group of federal EOD squads – including the 377th EOD Flight – who were tasked with testing the system and offering suggestions to improve it.
“XTK works across a wide variety of X-ray platforms – which is why it’s such a boon” to the EOD community, Crisp said.
New bomb techs can learn the program quickly and, with tens of thousands of bomb techs in the military and law enforcement now using XTK, it provides a very high level of interoperability, he said.
Keeping it simple
Senior Airman Josh Patterson, an EOD tech at the 377th, said XTK also assists bomb techs in determining how to set up the X-ray system to penetrate whatever type of container the explosive device might be housed in, without risking overexposure.
The amount of X-ray exposure used, Patterson said, “depends on what you’re trying to see through.”
“Because the material and thickness varies, you have to determine how much (X-ray) exposure you’ll need to get a good image,” he said.
Prior to XTK, that required complicated mathematical formulas that could take considerable time to apply. XTK, he said, does the calculations for you with a few quick keystrokes, ensuring a usable image.
“We went from probably five minutes of calculation to nearly zero,” Crisp said.
The FBI’s Hazardous Devices School, which trains and certifies nearly 500 civilian law enforcement bomb squads, has adopted XTK as its premier software suite, Sandia researcher Deuel said.
How XTK wound up in the hands of an estimated 20,000 civilian law enforcement bomb techs so quickly is a testament to its developers and Sandia, Deuel said.
“One of the reasons XTK took off was because it’s free,” Deuel said. “The reason it’s free is because the developers agreed to give it away” rather than accept royalties to which they are legally entitled.
Realizing that cash-strapped civilian bomb teams likely couldn’t afford the royalties – and recognizing the importance of their work – the developers opted for free distribution to qualified civilian bomb teams, he said.
“That was their decision, and it was huge,” Deuel said.
Sandia also offered free test and evaluation licenses to X-ray system manufacturers to ensure XTK is compatible with their systems and offered low-cost licenses to companies that agreed to provide quality training for civilian XTK users.
Those efforts won Sandia the 2016 Federal Laboratory Consortium Award for Excellence in Technology Transfer, Deuel said.