In a training session, bomb techs use Sandia National Laboratories’ XTK software to stitch together X-ray images of a suspicious package. The XTK team spent hundreds of hours with Explosive Ordnance Disposal technicians learning how they work. (Photo courtesy of the National Nuclear Security Administration)

In the chaos that followed the terrorist attack at the 2013 Boston Marathon, bomb squads scanned packages at the scene for explosive devices. Two homemade pressure cooker bombs had killed three people and injured more than 250, and techs quickly had to determine if more were waiting to blow up.

They got help from X-Ray Toolkit (XTK), an image-processing and analysis software developed at Sandia National Laboratories that has spread through the military and emergency response communities so rapidly that it’s now in the hands of more than 20,000 users across the globe. It also was adopted by the FBI’s Hazardous Devices School, which certifies the 467 recognized state and local bomb squads in the U.S.

The toolkit got to the people who needed it so quickly due to an unconventional approach to technology transfer. Licensing specialist Bob Westervelt said Sandia did three things:

  • they offered it to military and law enforcement bomb squads to download free from the XTK website;
  • they offered no-cost test and evaluation licenses to X-ray scanner manufacturers so they could make sure XTK worked with their hardware; and
  • they offered low-cost licenses to companies willing to give high-quality training to end users.

Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) technicians use portable X-ray scanners with image-processing software to look inside and analyze suspicious objects ranging from backpacks to battlefield improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to shipping containers. It’s a high-pressure, time-sensitive job. “Every mission is different,” said Justin Garretson, lead developer of the XTK software. “Maybe it’s just someone’s lunch or a hoax, but maybe it’s a pipe bomb. It’s all about speed, precision and accuracy. It’s about having all the tools you need, none that you don’t need and supporting the bomb tech’s natural work flow.”

Before XTK, bomb techs had to learn to use multiple software packages, most developed for medical X-ray or photography applications rather than emergency response. The federal government wanted a specialized X-ray visualization tool, and Sandia was tapped in 2009 to develop XTK with funding from the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and the Department of Defense Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office. “We wanted something new and specific to the needs of national EOD personnel responsible for responding to nuclear terrorism events,” said Marc Phipps, a former Army non-commissioned officer and bomb technician who headed up the XTK project for NNSA.

The XTK team spent hundreds of hours with EOD technicians learning how they work and custom built the software to meet their needs. “There was a lot of collaboration. As a response organization, we were able to guide the software where it needed to be,” Phipps said. “We went out with local bomb squads and brought Sandia coders with us to the field. Justin would be in the classroom writing code while the techs were testing the software. We would de-bug it right there. He wrote the code during lunch and when the techs came back it was ready. We gave everybody everything they ever wanted. It was awesome.”

Garretson said Phipps had “a vision of what this software could be. We’d get something done and he’d give us more,” Garretson said. “Make it do this, make it do that. Have it talk to the scanners, stitch images together, enhance so we can see things better, now add measurement tools. We did all that. Now make it compress the images so I can upload them over a satellite data-link. Piece by piece, Marc had us put into one user-friendly package all the tools that could make the bomb tech more effective.”

Phipps said there were dozens of versions of the toolkit before XTK 1.0 was ready. A bomb tech scans an object and acquires an image, then applies “all our XTK magic to it,” Garretson said. “But it doesn’t begin or even end with looking at the images. XTK assists the bomb tech in every step of the operation from planning X-ray exposures to transmitting images out of the field.”

The software tools can help optimize X-rays, identify critical device components, create 3-D visualizations, stitch multiple images together to cover large objects and compress large images for transmission. XTK also offers file management, measurement, markup, image-sharing tools and the ability to create training scenarios and after-action reports.

Craig Greene, a special agent and bomb technician at the Albuquerque FBI, said bomb techs must manipulate a radiographic image to learn what it is. “XTK is very versatile and lets us manipulate the X-ray to identify certain components. There are no alternatives to identifying what’s in the X-ray,” he said. “That’s the key to rendering safe any IED or explosive. If you don’t know what’s inside the packet, the render safe tool might be wrong.”

In tandem, Sandia designed the patented Grid-Aim system, an optional hardware accessory kit for XTK that lets users quickly and precisely disable the internal components of an IED with minimal damage to surrounding property and infrastructure, preserving the rest of the device for evidence. As XTK and Grid-Aim were being developed for government use, Phipps saw that the system could help military and civilian bomb techs do their jobs better. “We were working with FBI and state and local EOD people,” he said. “All the local guys said, ‘How do we get that?’ Well, the government paid for it, why not give it to them? So we gave it away.”

The technology transfer began in 2012 when the government began outside distribution of XTK software. Sandia wasn’t able to train the tens of thousands of people who wanted XTK so the technology was licensed to multiple companies that provided training and helped get XTK widely distributed in a short time. Instructors are tested and certified every year to maintain high-quality training. Grid-Aim was licensed separately to four companies that produce and sell the hardware.

XTK is currently used by the Department of Justice, Department of Energy and Department of Defense. U.S. allies including the United Kington, Australia and Canada use the software, with more requests coming in from international training partners. Sandia updates XTK regularly with new features and versions designed for mobile computer platforms, such as touch-screen tablets.

Greene said bomb techs know and appreciate that NNSA, which funded the initial work, made the software available as a free app and continues to update it. “That’s important to them,” he said. “It’s their lives and the lives of others on the line.”