Help is on the way to develop more intelligent responses to those X-ray images at airport checkpoints that resemble bomb parts, but turn out to be harmless electronic components, some firms' security experts say. But how much help is a matter of opinion, and whether one's firm has an apparent solution in the pipeline.
Every now and again, an X-ray image presents one or more objects in a carry-on that look like batteries, wires, or other pieces of what could be an improvised explosive device (IED). Delays and evacuations ensue. The "IED" turns out be, of course .... a battery and some wires.
On April 25 at Miami Int'l Airport (MIA) in Florida, just such an image closed two concourses for about 30 minutes (Air Safety Week, May 15). On March 7, parts of Portland Int'l Airport (PDX) in Oregon were shut down for 2.5 hours because of a "suspicious" image in a carry-on, which was an electronic device intended to help golfers improve their swing (Air Safety Week, March 27).
In general, incidents involving "suspicious" bags abound, with their accompanying uncertainties and delays. But lately, few details are released.
Airport X-ray machines are still using an "old technology" of imaging that relies on humans to interpret whether there may be a hazardous device, says one private security expert who declines to be named. But there's a "next generation" of technology coming to checkpoints, which is generally the same technology that's now in use for checked luggage. This other technology still requires human input.
The last big breakthrough arrived in the form of dual energy X-ray signals that differentiate inorganic matter -- like hair dryers, electronic components -- from organic matter -- like nitrates that comprise explosive materials. Then the inorganic and the organic items are identified on the machine's screen by different colors.
Without discussing security-sensitive specifics, the reason for all the alarms lies in how IEDs are detected under X-ray by the human screener, says Peter Kant, vice president of government affairs for Rapiscan Systems. Under current protocols, it's important to validate certain visual anomolies regardless of the organic versus inorganic determination by the machine. "Basically, IEDs are tough to detect and these visual clues are key to their detection," Kant says.
In the meantime, there have been some strides in narrowing down the range of materials that show up as "organic," the anonymous source adds, but regulators are reluctant to turn on such features out of fear of increasing the false alarm rate.
In essence, it's some combination of organic-item imaging and inorganic item imaging that distinguishes a "bad" electronic device from a "good" (harmless) one, he adds. Either one can indicate the presence of a threat. When the two are seen together, the likelihood of a threat present is greater, but not certain.
Imaging electronic components and attempting to analyze the threat they pose by themselves is a task that is rife with problems, this same source says. "The ultimate solution," he adds, probably lies in designing "a system of systems."
Such a system might be Rapiscan's QXR1000, which will combine X-ray with a newer technology called quadrapole resonance (QR). "The QR portion is specifically designed to automatically detect these very difficult IED type threats that result in the current delays," Kant tells Air Safety Week.
The device was developed with support from the U.S. Technology Support Working Group, has successfully completed its TSA testing phase at the agency's labs in New Jersey and is awaiting TSA's go-ahead for operational airport trials.
Kant and other proponents of QR -- such as Kevin Russeth, CEO of Rapiscan partner and QR developer QRSciences of Perth, Australia -- insist that the technology is especially good at detecting objects that have previously been hard to detect. The device has the same throughput as today's X-ray scanners and is the same width, but stretches an additional eight feet in length, and will cost about $150,000, Kant says.
QR consists of low-frequency radio waves that interact uniquely with the molecules of different materials. The radio waves cause a reaction in the materials' component molecules, such as nitrogen, causing a molecular reaction and transmitting back a unique frequency signature.
If something first looks suspicious under X-ray, immediately after the QR will provide a more certain identification of an explosive compound or the shielding material it may be wrapped in. Or, if the X-ray picks out something organic, the QR "tells me that while it looks kind of funny, it's not an explosive material or a shielding," he explains.
>>Contacts: Peter Kant, Rapiscan, (703) 812-0322, firstname.lastname@example.org; QRSciences Limited, +61 (8) 9351 1200, fax: +61 (8) 9351 9522
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