Take Any Bottle Onto an Aircraft Thanks to Cobalt Light Systems and LabVIEW

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"LabVIEW enabled our small development team to efficiently design, rigorously test, and seamlessly deploy a maintainable solution within extremely tight deadlines – something that we could not have achieved using other development platforms. Subsequently, we have grown sales from £0.8m to £12m in just two years."

- David Crawford, Cobalt Light Systems Ltd.

The Challenge:
Facilitating non-invasive detection of explosive materials to support the relaxation of the liquids ban on commercial aircrafts, whilst maintaining public security.

The Solution:
Developing the INSIGHT100 device, powered by NI LabVIEW, to automate data acquisition and apply in-line signal processing to detect explosives in liquids, aerosols, and gels in a wide range of opaque plastic and coloured glass containers.

David Crawford - Cobalt Light Systems Ltd.
Stuart Bonthron - Cobalt Light Systems Ltd.

A Liquid Ban in Commercial Air Travel

In 2006, conspiring terrorists plotted to detonate liquid explosives carried onboard commercial airliners travelling from the United Kingdom to the United States and Canada. Although the plot was swiftly foiled by British authorities, it sent security shockwaves across the world. The aftermath of the transatlantic aircraft plot saw airports around the globe prohibit liquids, aerosols, and gels over 100 ml (3.5 ounce) being carried onto commercial flights.

As an international community, we appreciate the necessary security measures that help to ensure passenger safety. However, many travellers are still frustrated when told to throw away expensive perfumes, contact lens cleaners, or gifts for loved-ones when the containers are larger than the allowed size.

Cobalt Light Systems 

Cobalt Light Systems was established in 2006 to develop novel technologies for non-invasive, sub-surface analysis. We market these products to wide range of Raman applications for laboratory, pharmaceutical, biological, and industrial analysis. At the heart of our technology is the ability to rapidly and accurately measure chemical composition without touching or changing the sample.  The underlying technology is exclusive to the company and was invented at the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in the UK.

The UK government, along with the wider EU community, are working on plans to ease the liquid ban in 2013. In order to facilitate the relaxation of the ban, whilst maintaining public security, Cobalt Light Systems developed the INSIGHT100; an innovative security screening device, which analyses bottles of up to three litres for explosives in less than five seconds.

Introducing the INSIGHT100

INSIGHT100 is a table-top, container-screening device for use at security checkpoints such as airports, government buildings, and other passenger hubs. The system screens liquids, powders, or gels within sealed containers such as glass or plastic bottles, tubs, and other common receptacles.

INSIGHT100’s screening process utilises a technique called spatially offset Raman spectroscopy (SORS). A near-infrared laser is directed at a test subject at multiple points. A small proportion of the light reflected back at each point is shifted in wavelength by the energy levels in the liquid molecules, and this small shift reveals what the substance is. The INSIGHT100 acquires the reflected, shifted spectra before comparing them against a library of SORS signatures, enabling the INSIGHT100 to determine the presence of hazardous substances and material threats.

Crucially, the detection capability is extremely high and false alarm rates have been demonstrated to be ~1.5 percent or less (Loeffen, P.W. et al, proc. SPIE, 2011).

Another key requirement of the INSIGHT100 is high throughput. Heightened air-travel security in our post 9-11 world represents a significant bottle neck in passenger movement from check-in to departures. As the INSIGHT100 will be used in conjunction with existing security measures, we were eager to minimise additional delays. Appropriately, the INSIGHT100 is able to screen a 3 liter bottle in 5 seconds, thereby maximising the flow of people and commerce.

The device utilises a number of individual instruments including multi-function data acquisition, laser excitation source, complex energy delivery and collection optical assembly, and a high-performance CCD Raman spectrometer. Automated control and synchronisation of the instrumentation is handled by a versatile, yet easy to maintain, application written in LabVIEW.

Why did Cobalt Choose LabVIEW?

The software development team at Cobalt Light Systems has more than 25 years combined experience with LabVIEW. That shows that we are strong advocates of the software development environment.

We appreciate how easy and fast it is to produce good looking, intuitive graphical user interfaces (GUIs). Quickly prototyped GUIs allowed us to create the feel of the application when we present it to our marketing teams or our customers at the early stages of the development process.

LabVIEW provides us with a platform that enables us to separate hardware and software automation into modular standalone blocks from the GUI development allowing our team of engineers to code in parallel, allowing rapid application development. Being able to separate our code into standalone modular blocks lends itself to more thorough testing.

LabVIEW is commonly regarded as the leading development environment for instrumentation. As such, most instrument vendors provide prebuilt LabVIEW drivers for simplifying communications with their instruments. This makes “getting started” a really fast process. Additionally, in the rare instances where prebuilt drivers do not exist, the hardware manufacturers will provide dynamic link libraries (DLLs), which can be easily wrapped into custom LabVIEW functions, to build our own driver sets.

Finally, by implementing a graphical system design approach to developing the INSIGHT100, we were able to seamlessly combine multiple models of computation into our software. Although our development team is made up of experienced users of LabVIEW graphical dataflow programming, we are also well versed in a variety of other software development methodologies, including textual math, C, R and Matlab. The native support of LabVIEW for such programming styles allowed us to branch into parallel development paths to create specialised algorithms before merging the code back into a consolidated, top-level LabVIEW application.


The INSIGHT100 was successfully approved by the European Civil Aviation Conference, by meeting Type B Standard 2 for liquid explosive detection systems. Cobalt Light Systems has since deployed 265 INSIGHT100 security scanners to 65 airports across Europe. This includes eight of the top ten European airports, such as London Gatwick and Heathrow, one of the busiest airports in the world.

Additionally, Cobalt beat a variety of world renowned engineering giants to win the prestigious MacRobert Award 2014, hosted by Royal Academy of Engineering. The Princess Royal presented the award in recognition of Cobalt’s life-saving technology. Known for spotting the 'next big thing' in the technology sector, the Royal Academy of Engineering MacRobert Award identifies outstanding innovation with proven commercial promise and tangible societal benefit. First presented in 1969, the MacRobert Award is widely regarded as the most coveted in the industry.

John Robinson FREng, Chair of the MacRobert Award judging panel, said: "The promise of this single fundamental innovation to improve the lives of millions of people in such a variety of ways meant Cobalt stood out in what has been a particularly competitive year for the MacRobert Award.”

LabVIEW enabled our small development team to efficiently design, rigorously test, and seamlessly deploy a maintainable solution within extremely tight deadlines – something that we could not have achieved using other development platforms. Subsequently, we have grown sales from £0.8m to £12m in just two years.

Author Information:
David Crawford
Cobalt Light Systems Ltd.
Cobalt Light Systems Limited, 174 Brook Drive, Milton Park
Oxfordshire OX14 4SD
United Kingdom

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