Developing video fingerprinting for border control

SCPS research scientist Dr Nick Monahan has been awarded a $25,000 KiwiNet grant for his innovative video fingerprinting research.


The grant from the KiwiNet Emerging Innovator Fund, to help nurture innovative new ideas from scientists and support early stage prototype and market development, is one of ten made possible by a donation from the Norman F. B. Barry Foundation.

The grant is enabling Dr Monahan to develop a prototype handheld device that can rapidly scan passengers and other items in real time to identify prohibited items.

“Our scanning technology uses compact low powered lasers to leverage a portion of the electromagnetic spectrum known as terahertz (THz) radiation to generate ‘fingerprints’. These allow border authorities to identify organic substances that X-rays cannot,” he says.

According to Dr Monahan, existing scanning equipment used for border control is both large and expensive.

“The goal is to make video camera technology that uses terahertz radiation, which in this case, is a bit like X-rays in that it can see through packaging and bags to identify prohibited items. The pixels in the terahertz pictures and videos we generate contain fingerprints that record how a material absorbs different wavelengths in the THz spectrum.”

Dr James Hutchinson, chief executive of KiwiNet says, “The increased volume of international passengers, mail and cargo moving between borders presents challenges for border authorities, and creates an opportunity to streamline the border security process with new innovative technology. We’re pleased to support Dr Monahan’s highly innovative research.”

Dr Monahan is building a fingerprinting database to identify small carbon based molecules found in prohibited pharmaceuticals and explosives. The database will be tailored to meet the needs of different border authorities and trigger alerts when target items are scanned.

Dr Anne Barnett, general manager of commercialisation at Viclink, Victoria's commercialisation office, nominated Dr Monahan for the KiwiNet Emerging Innovator Fund grant, and Viclink is continuing to provide commercialisation support.

Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) was also identified as an ideal proof of concept industry partner.

Dr Desi Ramoo, research and innovation practise lead at MPI says, “MPI’s support for Dr Monahan’s prototyping demonstrates our desire to provide MPI staff with world leading technology developed by New Zealand’s innovative science community. We’ve identified a range of substances that we’re interested in for Dr Monahan to fingerprint. We’ve also highlighted real world applications so his prototype can better meet the needs of both our border authority and others around the world.”

The project additionally received $25,000 KiwiNet PreSeed funding and matching funding from Viclink. This was combined with funding from MPI in order to extend the length of the project and enable the development of a more robust prototype.

Dr Monahan says, “I’m very grateful to the Foundation and to KiwiNet as their support has been critical in the development of this technology. I’m also developing invaluable skills not usually developed as a scientist like communicating science and pitching ideas.”