Device Finds IEDs

Whenever Capt. Kirk and Mr. Spock found themselves on strange planets in the old Star Trek television series, Spock would always check the readings on his trusty tricorder to see if potential threats were nearby. “What a tricorder did was give them total awareness of their surroundings, and that’s what we’re after,” says Dr. Michael Steer, Lampe Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, whose research at NC State is moving such a device closer to the realm of reality.

“We want to be able to detect things at a distance so a convoy moving at 60 miles per hour has time to stop.”

Steer has worked for years on defense grants to improve radio communication in the field by limiting signal disruptions. After 9/11, he was asked to take his work to a new level and assist with counter-terrorism efforts. Now, his expertise with electromagnetic fields is helping create a portable detector so troops can locate roadside bombs and pick suicide bombers out of a crowd. “We’re finding the acoustic and radar signatures of different objects,” he says, “so we can tell the difference between a rock and an IED (improvised explosive device).”

Inside a chamber lined with echo-dampening foam spikes in Steer’s Centennial Campus lab, his research team blasts objects with sound waves at up to 156 decibels. (By comparison, the sound produced by a jet engine is about 120 decibels.) Every object has a unique “ringing” or vibration pattern, Steer says, and bouncing sound waves off an item in the chamber helps isolate its pattern. Steer’s research team has compared rocks similar to those found

in Iraq and Afghanistan with the hard foam insurgents use to disguise IEDs.

The team also uses microwaves to detect metal in the various objects to further refine the radar signature of each. By varying the frequency of the radar wave or adjusting the amplitude, Steer can tweak the signal into a non-linear wave, which he says exaggerates the signature and makes it easier to identify by U.S. troops. “We want to be able to detect things at a distance so a convoy moving at 60 miles per hour has time to stop,” he says, “and we can get better response by using sound and radar at the same time.”

For his device, which has been deployed in two war zones, Steer was recently awarded the U.S. Army Commander’s Award for Public Service by the commanding
general of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command. At the public ceremony in March, Major General Nick Justice said, “This is a game-changer in modern warfare. It changed the way the enemy behaves.” He added, “We had lost the capability to operate in that environment, and this put us back on the battlefield and gave us the ability to go out there knowing we can protect the young soldiers’ lives and engage the enemy and not have to hide behind the castle walls.”


Glenwood Garner, a Ph.D. student in electrical engineering, aligns a rock inside a test chamber so it can be blasted with sound waves to determine the unique vibration pattern of its molecules.

Dr. Michael Steer and Jonathan Wilkerson, a Ph.D. student in electrical engineering, discuss the results of tests Steer’s research team is conducting to develop a portable detector the military can use to locate roadside bombs.