IIT Bombay startup NanoSniff Technologies has developed the world's first micro-sensor based explosive trace detector (ETD), which is to be marketed by an IIT Delhi startup, Vehant Technologies. This product is being commercialized as "NanoSniffer." The micro-electromechanical system (MEMS), with its core technology protected by patents in the US, Europe, and India, is utilized. It is the first time that an Indian company has developed a MEMS based affordable ETD.

Vehant Technologies, incubated in IIT Delhi in 2005, is a trailblazer in the Indian market for Artificial Intelligence and Machine learning based security, surveillance, traffic monitoring and junction enforcement solutions. To leverage the current security system, they wish to not only upgrade the prevalent security system but also to set hallmarks in the private security industry. This startup has resolved to utilize this technology to make the world a safer place in the age of artificial intelligence.

Incubated at Society for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (SINE) in the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, NanoSniff Technologies is a MEMS Fabrication and product R&D organization. It is the first Indian company to commercialize microcantilever and microheater sensor technologies for mass production successfully.

Kapil Bardeja, CEO and Co-founder, of Vehant Technologies.

According to Kapil Bardeja, CEO of Vehant Technologies and Director, Nanosniff technologies, the device has been priced at Rs 10 lakh, one-third of the existing similar devices by global peers.

In an informative interview, he has thoughtfully brought to light the working of the NanoSniffer.

What makes this product so unique?

It is a fully made in India product in terms of R&D and manufacturing. The indigenously developed ETD device can detect explosives in less than 10 seconds. It also identifies and categorizes explosives into different classes. It accurately detects all categories of military, conventional and homemade explosives, including RDX, HMX, TNT, TATP, Nitroglycerin, Ammonium Nitrate, and plastic explosives.

NanoSniffer uses a trace detection technique that can detect nanogram quantities of explosives, consequently anticipating a wide range of military, commercial and homemade explosives threats.

Besides having a video and auto alerts system with a sunlight-readable color display, it also does not respond to the odour of non-explosive like medicines and perfumes. Additionally, it has meager operational costs as compared to other foreign OEM's. It repels contamination from weather, humidity, dirt and dust.

The NanoSniffer

So, how does this technology really work?

A paper swipe is used to swipe a surface and collect a sample of the material to be tested. The collected sample is put in the analyzer. Vapours are released on heating the sample. These vapours go into the micrometer. The micrometer then causes a deflagration event. Nano explosions cause this deflagration in the cavity in the analyzer. The machine then analyses the vapours. A "GO" signal on the machine starts blinking should the sample be explosive.

The machine also generates a differential of the temperature. The signatures of these differential curves are used to analyze and procure further information regarding the classification and categorization of the material should it be explosive. We further look into the explosive, whether it is RDX, TNT or maybe some other explosive.

All of this happens within 8 seconds of you inserting the swipe in the analyzer.

The values on multiple points of the differential curve are used to distinguish the explosive. Further analysis of the algorithms also helps in the categorization of explosives into the appropriate class.

The Research process

The development of the sensor tool took as good as three years. It is always remunerative to be able to induce results. However, it was imperative to be able to make this research commercially viable. The sensitivity capability was validated by the High Energy Materials Research Laboratory (HEMRL) under DRDO in Pune.

In the first six months, the yield was 5 percent on a 2-inch paper. Finally, they could obtain a yield of close to 80% on 4-inch paper. Improving the yield and consequently ensuring that they could accomplish the desired results was a 3-year process. Following this, they went on with the product side, started doing the algorithms and working on the boards and electronics to pick up those temperature signatures. This took another 2-3 years. Testing of these components and the machine in its entirety took another two years.

Pattern recognition and electronics are very complex. The research team overcame the challenges of pattern recognition, ensuring that there will be no false alarms. This was vital for the Nano Sniffer to be able to detect accurately in all circumstances and constraints.

"It was pretty exciting and frustrating at the same time. These things can not be solved within months. When we finally launched the product, it was very encouraging and rewarding. But the journey was very frustrating and slow. For a week, we didn't know what to do and then we would experiment and scrutinize various other courses of action. It's exciting, challenging and frustrating", says Kapil Bardeja, CEO of Vehant technologies and Director of Nanosniff.

They ensured the recognition of all the substances with a similar nature to an explosive. Even though it was an articulate, intricate and elaborate process that lasted for seven years, the research team ensured the successful working of the Nanosniffer.

Sensor Board

The Manufacturing

The first manufacturing process is the MEM sensor, which is being done in a lab. Part of it is being done in IIT Bombay and part of it is being done in IISC Bangalore, and that's only the fabrication of the sensors. The PCB manufacture is in-house, followed by PCB assembly and mounting. Electronic manufacturing is the second part of the process.

Where does the Nanosniffer now stand?

"The technology building is expensive. The cost of replicating that sensor is very cheap now that it is developed. Material cost is low but then the initial cost was very high. Development costs are huge. Once it is developed the mass production is very cheap. Hence the selling price is low as compared to the competitors.", as stated by Kapil Bardeja.

It was launched on the 9th of April, 2021. NanoSniffer has successfully passed Pune-based DRDO's High Energy Materials Research Laboratory's (HEMRL) testing and has also been tested by the country's elite counter-terror force National Security Guard (NSG).

"Indian policies have acted as a catalyst in many Indian startups and I believe it will do so for many more startups yet to come. They have been able to revolutionize the Indian market as well as the consumer beheviour to a great extent," says Kapil Bardeja.

It accurately detects all classes of the military, conventional and homemade explosives, including RDX, HMX, TNT, TATP, Nitroglycerin, Ammonium Nitrate, and plastic explosives.

This might have been the first time an Indian Company ventured into this sector but we hope that the future holds more, for the Indian consumers as well as the manufacturers. While we support and celebrate our entrepreneurs as well as research teams through the initiative of Made In India, may our conviction hold firm and lead us through grave challenges only to emerge fiercer and more potent as a community.