What’s Inside That Building?

U.K. defense and science researchers developing sensory gadget

Here’s a useful bit of spyware for defense departments: University College of London researchers have developed a portable gadget that can detect electric motors, combustion engines, turbines, air conditioning units, fans (including those inside computers), and any other rotating machinery that yields an electromagnetic field—all from behind a concrete wall. The newfound device is said to be able to work at a distance and is currently about the size of a suitcase.

Concocted during a joint project with the U.K.’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory beginning in 2015 called “What’s inside that building?” the gadget is intended to be used for reconnaissance, intelligence, and defense purposes as of now. Teams are confident they can reduce the size substantially, making its portability more discreet.

The tool demonstrates remote detection of rotating machinery by using an atomic magnetometer at room temperature and in an unshielded environment. The system relies on the coupling of the AC magnetic signature of the target with a spin-polarized, precessing atomic vapor of a radio-frequency optical atomic magnetometer.

AC magnetic signatures of rotating equipment or electric motors appeared as sidebands in the power spectrum of the atomic sensor, which can be tuned to avoid noisy bands that would otherwise hamper detection. A portable apparatus was implemented and experimentally tested.

“Our instrument provides comparable or better performance than a commercial fluxgate and allows detection of rotating machinery behind a wall. These results demonstrate the potential for ultrasensitive devices for remote industrial and usage monitoring, security, and surveillance,” the study found.


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