A scientific breakthrough that could make personalized bombs harder to make is at hand. Scientists from the University of Pittsburgh and Johns Hopkins have developed a robotic arm that can detect explosives inside fabrics and other materials.

Their technology, which will be published in a scientific journal, marks another way to manipulate components for use in complex programs–and it’s a breakthrough in that area. But given that this robot has no legs and has to be walking on an eggshell, it might also find useful as a weapon that could exterminate 10,000 invading alien microbes without killing the human beings who would likely try to use it to attack the invaders.

The research team developed an automatic equipment that sorts and stores materials it determines are dangerous and causes no harm.

“The primary way that people decide if a material should be flushed down the toilet or put in a landfill is that humans have something called a nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer,” says Mihaela Kirkup, a biological engineer with the University of Pittsburgh. “They mix up materials to get a radioactive reading.”

Kirkup’s group “tested the efficiency of this technique and found that it yielded significantly higher quality results with a lower cost.” By using more of the right material, it could help to detect bombs and other devices, even though they are only a very cheap fix, requiring just materials taken from everyday life, including toilet paper, stainless steel and rubber strips.

The robots are being built to work with sensors in real time as well as take pictures of materials being swept up.

A high-performance arm, similar to what would be useful in counter-terrorism operations and other complex programs, would need to be designed and built for every segment of a very complex laboratory, like a chem-bio or computer simulations facility or biological samples, says Manuel Velázquez, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pittsburgh.

“For every application, we need new algorithms for searching more material, determining the sources of danger, identifying danger groups, and correlating objects with malware,” says Velázquez.

In their paper, the researchers note they have secured a patent on a “Method and algorithm for the non-target detection and treatment of explosive compounds.”

At the moment, Velázquez and his team are working on building a robot arm that can blend solid and liquid materials to identify the metal found in a plastic bracelet, for example.

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