On closer inspection

On closer inspection

Timothy Compston considers the techniques that are taking off at airports to pick up on explosives and other suspicious items

With activity in airports across the Middle East region starting to slowly re-open again after the shutdown at the height of the global pandemic – and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) expecting full-year traffic for 2020 to post a fall of 56 percent compared to 2019 – outside of these ongoing health concerns other critical challenges remain high on the agenda. Foremost amongst these for airports is the ability to detect explosives – and other dangerous items – on passengers and in carry-on and hold luggage – before there is a chance for it to reach the airside. Here we look at the latest scanning technologies being employed to secure aviation from these ongoing security threats.

Sadly, the aviation sector often finds itself in the firing line, so it tends, not surprisingly, to be ahead of the curve on new security technologies and regulations. Here in the Middle East, five years ago we witnessed an A321 Russian airliner breaking up over Sinai shortly after it took off from Sharm El Sheikh airport in Egypt, killing all 224 people on board. Plots and failed attempts are also shaping subsequent security measures. Consequently, there is now a greater focus on electronic devices, liquids/gels, powders, and footwear. A plot in 2006 involving liquid explosives in drinks bottles on flights from the UK to the US, resulted in the volume of liquids and gels that can be carried by passengers being limited to 100 ml – in many jurisdictions – with these too having to be taken out of carry-on luggage for closer inspection. The reality is that terrorists are constantly changing their methodologies, a case in point is the wider use of TATP (triacetone triperoxide) based explosives which can be made from chemicals found in common items – like nail polish remover and hair dye – and are, consequently, more difficult to detect.

Given this dynamic threat environment it is imperative, therefore, that security staff have the right procedures and equipment in place to detect and deal with explosives and suspicious items before they inflict damage on their intended targets. A wide range of innovations are all in the frame here including: CT (Computed Tomography) and body scanners – although it is notable that many airports in the region have not gone down the body scanner route; aviation-approved explosives and narcotics detection solutions with non-radioactive sources such as the Itemiser 4DX from Rapiscan Systems; handheld explosive detectors that can apply automated colourmetrics with a good example here being DetectaChem and its SEEKERe product line; RF (Radio Frequency) jammers – or inhibitors – to protect bomb disposal teams and specialised bomb disposal robots. Alongside all this technology well-trained sniffer dogs have a vital role to play here.

At the higher end of the equipment scale sits the latest CT (Computed Tomography) scanners. Pushing the envelope for CT solutions is Smiths Detection, a leading threat-detection and security-technology company, which confirmed back in June that it is to supply hold-baggage screening equipment for Kuwait’s new International Airport Terminal 2 that is currently under construction. According to Smiths Detection, the contract includes the installation of HI-SCAN 10080 XCT units for screening hold baggage. Terminal 2, which is intended to become an international transit hub, will have the ability to handle 25 million passengers annually, and the screening equipment will help ensure the quick and thorough screening of baggage and cargo passing through the terminal. Commenting on the deal at the time, Jerome de Chassey, vice president APAC and Middle East for Smiths Detection said, “We’re happy to be entering this partnership with Kuwait International Airport, providing them with best-in-class screening equipment for their new terminal. The solutions they have selected are used in some of the biggest airports across the globe and have been designed to provide effective and efficient screening.”

3D Computed Tomography

Looking in more detail at equipment being deployed in Kuwait, the HI-SCAN 10080 XCT uses a dual-view, dual-energy line scanner with high-resolution 3D Computed Tomography (CT).  Smiths Detection says that this approach delivers exceptional levels of security with an efficient low false-alarm rate and exceeds international regulatory requirements, having achieved Standard 3.1 approval (the highest defined security standard in the EU). It also has TSA 7.2 certification. Away from the Middle East, the HI-SCAN 10080 XCT has also been selected by a number of other major international airports, for example Singapore Changi Airport is set to deploy 20 units of the ultra-high speed Smiths Detection HI-SCAN 10080 XCT automatic explosives detection systems (EDS) for the redevelopment of the Terminal 2 Baggage Handling System. The 20 HI-SCAN 10080 XCT units are scheduled for installation over a four-year period.

Another example of the upward path for CT scanning technology is the HI-SCAN 6040 CTiX checkpoint scanner, also from Smiths Detection, which is said to be the first solution of its kind to feature the company’s proprietary CT scanning technology. When deployed, the cutting-edge checkpoint scanner is designed to generate high resolution and exceptionally accurate 3D and 2D images thus in future, potentially, eliminating the need to remove electronics and liquids from hand luggage so improving the passenger experience.

Over in the US, it was reported this month (September) that five new advanced technology computed tomography checkpoint scanners (CT) have been installed and are in use at Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoints at Philadelphia International Airport. Commenting on this move, Gerardo Spero, TSA’s federal security director for the airport, underlines the operational benefits that CT unlocks: “The new technology assists us in addressing new and emerging threats, allowing for better detection of those potential items by providing three-dimensional, high resolution X-ray images. It offers us critical explosives detection capabilities at the checkpoint and enhances the TSA officer’s ability in determining whether an item inside a carry-on bag is a possible threat to aviation security. This technology is already in use in our screening of checked baggage. We’re pleased that it is now available at several of our checkpoints to screen carry-on bags.”

As elsewhere, the security challenges the aviation industry faces are fast moving, this was again illustrated in 2018 when the Australian Government announced that it was enforcing limits on powder products – specifically the inorganic variety like talcum powder – in carry-on baggage for overseas flights. The catalyst for the change was, reportedly, a plan, that fortunately did not come to fruition, by individuals based in Australia to blow up a plane flying from Sydney to Abu Dhabi.

Stand-off technology

For airports there is, of course, a constant balance to be struck between more stringent security and the efficiency of their operations so the more checks that can be done on the move, without having to delay passengers and staff, for example, the better. With this as a common issue for transport hubs and other high throughput environments we have seen greater interest in the potential for solutions like Thruvision, for instance, and the way it employs patented terahertz technology for safe and non-intrusive, stand-off, screening of concealed threat items. Thruvision says that solutions like its TAC model can see items – including metal, plastic, ceramic, gel, liquid, powder, and paper – hidden in peoples’ clothing at distances of three to 10 metres.

Also, on the subject of Thruvision, back in December, Dallas Fort Worth International Airport in the US revealed that a more effective method of screening personnel through employee portals was being piloted. Specifically, the pilot involved DFW and the Transportation Security Administration’s Innovation Task Force team conducting a demonstration of a next-generation people screening scanner from Thruvision that can detect both metallic and non-metallic objects. DFW says that, in practice, the new Thruvision technology, coupled with an x-ray machine, should reduce the need for physical inspection of items and enable employees to be processed quickly and in a discreet manner. “This technology demonstration project is just part of our commitment to implement enterprise risk management best practices that take advantage of new and emerging technologies serving the aviation industry,” said Chad Makovsky, DFW’s executive vice president for operations. “As an Innovation Task Force airport, our active partnership with TSA continues to inspire new ways of enhancing security effectiveness while providing a more seamless experience for our customers and stakeholders.”

Screening at speed

Staying with the US, the potential shape of things to come for security at American airports and those further afield is encapsulated in the vision for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate’s Apex Screening at Speed programme, whose primary customer is the Transportation Security Administration. This Apex initiative is all about the wish to see a situation where passengers can simply enter an airport and walk through a security checkpoint with their coat and shoes on, their laptop in its case, and only have minimal delays before they arrive at their ultimate departure gate.