New airport scanners could end bans on liquids, gels and laptops

Travel News 27 Jun 2017

Manufacturers of airport security equipment have a message for travellers who fear they will have to give up laptops and tablet computers on international flights: They have a solution.

At least four of the largest companies making screening devices say they are developing scanners so much better at detecting explosives than existing X-ray machines that passengers could leave laptops, other electronics and even liquids in their bags, vastly simplifying airport security.

“It’s a no brainer,” said Joseph Paresi, chief executive officer of Integrated Defense & Security Solutions, which has developed one of the new scanning machines that has passed initial U.S. government testing. “It’s not if. It’s when it’s going to happen.”

But the speed with which U.S., European and other security agencies can put them into widespread use remains an open question. After being burned by attempts to roll out new screening equipment in the past – such as having to warehouse hundreds of so-called puffer machines designed to detect explosives because they didn’t perform well in real-world conditions a decade ago – the Transportation Security Administration has instituted multiple layers of performance tests.

And Congress hasn’t appropriated funds for large purchases of the machines. Adding the devices, which list for several hundred thousand dollars each, at thousands of airport security lines in just the U.S. could cost US$1 billion or more.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security in March banned electronic devices larger than a mobile phone from airliner cabins on flights from 10 Middle East and North Africa airports to the U.S., citing concerns that terrorists had created ways to conceal explosives in them.

Since then, the agency has been considering expanding the ban to Europe – over the objections of the European Commission and air carriers.

At the same time, TSA is conducting tests of closer screening procedures for electronics at 10 U.S. airports with an eye toward expanding them nationwide.

Groups representing airlines and airports say they are hopeful that new technology could ease the need for the new security measures.

“The ban on large personal electronic devices in the cabin has certainly highlighted the importance of governments stepping up their support for more capable checkpoint screening technology to respond to emerging threats,” Perry Flint, spokesman for the International Air Transport Association, said in an interview.

There is optimism over the ability of these machines – which borrow computed tomography or CT scan technology from the medical world to create a high-definition, three-dimension view inside a bag – to address the new threats.

The TSA has tested two of the devices and plans to place one of each in airports later this year to study how they operate in the trying environment of airport security lanes. The devices are built by IDSS and L3 Technologies.

“CT technology has the potential to significantly improve security as well as the checkpoint experience for travelers,” TSA spokesman Michael England said in an emailed statement. “However, while this technology has shown promise, more testing is needed before it can be rolled out nationwide.”

The current X-ray machines at airports shoot two views of a bag or bin, providing TSA screeners a color view of the interior. While superior to earlier generations of X-ray machines, they have their limitations. In tests by government agents, screeners frequently miss weapons and simulated bombs.

CT machines provide a far more detailed picture of a bag’s contents. A spinning X-ray camera can capture more than 1,000 images of a piece of luggage from different angles, allowing a computer to create a high-definition, three-dimensional view. By calculating the densities of material, even small amounts of explosives can be automatically detected.

The same CT technology is used in machines installed at airports after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks to detect explosives in checked bags.

In promotional material, L3’s Security & Detection Systems division said its CT checkpoint scanner could streamline airport screening. The device has a lower false-alarm rate than current X-ray systems, which decreases the need for time-consuming, hand searches of bags, the company said.

Because passengers could leave laptops and other devices in bags, it reduces the number of bins that must be scanned, which also improves efficiency, according to the company.

Smiths Detection Inc., the Smiths Group Plc division that makes security screening devices, is making a CT scanner that it will submit to TSA for testing, company President Dan Gelston said in an emailed statement. The company uses CT technology in its checked-bag screening machines.

Analogic, a Massachusetts-based company making medical and security equipment, has also developed a CT scanner for airports, according to the company’s website.

While there may be logistical issues installing the new machines, which are heavier than traditional X-ray devices and require more power, airports would welcome an upgrade, said Christopher Bidwell, vice president of security at Airports Council International-North America.

"Computed tomography systems have real potential and should be tested," he said.

Paresi, who founded IDSS to make this new generation of airport scanners and talks with a preacher’s fervor about their potential, acknowledges that many technical and political hurdles remain before they become commonplace at airports. But he believes an expanding ban of laptops and tablet readers in airline cabins could be a catalyst to speed adoption.

“If you have technology to solve the problem, wouldn’t it make sense to deploy that equipment?."