Redefining fast, accurate drug detection

How the Opioid Detection Challenge used open innovation to advance new hardware solutions.


More than 81,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2020, the highest number ever recorded in a 12-month period. Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that’s 100 times more powerful than morphine, is driving dramatic increases in overdose deaths. IIllicit fentanyl is often purchased online and shipped directly to buyers; packages can come from anywhere in the world, and lethal amounts can be shipped in small parcels, making illegal drugs difficult to detect. At the same time, e-commerce platforms and marketplaces are growing, and there are more international parcels entering mail sorting facilities than ever before.

Intercepting illegal opioids — without disrupting the flow of mail — is the modern-day equivalent of trying to find “a needle in a haystack.” Following an executive order and a bipartisan bill in Congress, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) — along with its partners at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) — sought nonintrusive tools and technologies for rapidly detecting illicit opioids in international mail.


Traffickers rapidly adapt and shift tactics to evade detection, so effective tools would have to be more nimble than criminals. And while the desired technologies would be used to detect opioids in the near-term, the hardware solutions would need to adapt to future needs for other types of detection. To be successful, solutions would also need to fit a complex workflow inside busy facilities: The International Mail Facility (IMF) at John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) in New York processes more than half of all the incoming international mail into the United States — roughly 1 million items each day. Detection tools with the requisite level of speed and accuracy didn’t already exist in the market, and there was no guarantee that an adequate solution could be developed and procured.


Luminary Labs designed and produced the Opioid Detection Challenge, a $1.55 million global prize competition, on behalf of S&T through a contract with the NASA Tournament Lab. We convened stakeholders across multiple federal agencies to define the problem and the needs of government partners, then we collaborated with stakeholders on both design and execution. We also mapped the inspection workflow and the hardware prototyping process to develop meaningful selection criteria and targeted resources for innovators.

Stage 1 of the challenge launched in February 2019 and called upon U.S. and international innovators to submit novel plans for rapid, nonintrusive detection tools. Global outreach rallied over 1,200 collaborators and solvers, and the challenge received submissions from more than 10 countries.

In June, the challenge announced eight finalists working across a range of technologies, from advanced imaging to X-ray diffraction. The finalists each received $100,000 and entered Stage 2, a 14-week prototyping accelerator, to develop their solutions within a tight timeline. Government and industry mentors provided tailored support to the finalists on topics such as the inspection process, trace detection, and user design. Finalists also gained access to government facilities, where they were able to see how the inspection process works in person while meeting and learning from inspection officers on the ground.

By October, finalists’ solutions were tested on-site at a government facility. In December — less than 10 months after the challenge launched — S&T, ONDCP, CBP, and USPIS convened at the Transportation Security Laboratory in New Jersey to demonstrate finalist solutions and announce the winning technologies.

IDSS received the $500,000 grand prize for its solution, which combines a 3D X-ray computed tomography (CT) scanner with automated detection algorithms. It identifies anomalies in X-ray images based on the scanned item’s features and physical properties. One Resonance received the $250,000 runner-up prize. It developed a quadrupole resonance technology that uses radio-frequency signals to search for specific materials. An alarm is triggered when a signal associated with an illicit substance is detected.


At the conclusion of the challenge, S&T and its government partners planned to continue working with the providers of the most promising solutions to further develop prototypes and establish follow-on production agreements. The government planned to deploy these tools in international mail facilities, express consignment facilities, and other environments across the country that call for rapid, accurate detection of opioids and related substances.

In July 2020, CBP awarded a contract to IDSS for the first phase of a pilot program to deliver up to seven systems to international mail inspection facilities. In April 2021, CBP announced a multimillion-dollar renovation of the IMF at JFK; the redesigned space features new IDSS machines that “will be critical in our effort to identify and disrupt the transnational criminal organizations who ship these deadly drugs through our international mail system.”