A McMaster engineer is taking part in a NATO-funded project to develop portable devices that help military and civilian security personnel detect concealed weapons with radar technology.

Natalia Nikolova

Natalia Nikolova is the first McMaster researcher to receive NATO funding. (Supplied by Natalia Nikolova)

In a three-year project that launches this month, Natalia Nikolova, an electrical and computer engineering professor, will be working with researchers from Canada and Ukraine to design devices that use radar signals to analyze the materials carried by a person.

The technology — which can be built into a military vest or a tripod, for example — is designed to emit radio waves that reach a person. The waves that bounce back will carry unique information that can be analyzed by computers. 

"This radio wave, as we say in radar terminology, interrogates the person and it carries back information from this target," Nikolva explained.

The devices can theoretically use algorithms based on neural networks to differentiate normal reflections of a human body from abnormal ones.

The technology has many applications, Nikolova said, such as at airports, border crossings and large public venues that require security screening.

Nikolova said her previous prototypes have a detection range of up to 3 metres, which does not provide enough safe distance for security personnel if there is a risk of an explosive device. The latest project aims to increase that distance to as far as 15 metres.

1st NATO grant for McMaster

The radar technology that was used as early as the 19th century is now commonplace: think marine radars, microwave ovens, and police radar guns that catch speeding cars.

Detection using radar technology — described as a type of covert screening — is particularly useful on uncooperative threats, Nikolova said.

"But it doesn't always have to be covert. You can always plaster signs," she said.

The privacy concerns caused by many detection devices are minimal in this case, Nikolova said, because the frequency range used isn't high enough to generate an image of the person. 

Nikolova said her designs are different from a full-body scanner seen at airport screening points, although both use radar technology. The scanner uses high frequency waves to generate an image and requires trained human operators to make a decision. 

"In our case, it's going to be a computer that is analyzing features in signals," she said. 

Nikolova's team received $766,300 from NATO's Science for Peace and Security program, which funds multi-year research, training courses and workshops related to security. The program describes itself as "the first concrete link" between NATO and a partner by supporting scientific collaboration between NATO countries and partner countries.

The devices developed during the project will be tested at several sites, including the Kyiv International Airport.

The grant also marks the first time a McMaster researcher has received NATO funding, the university said.