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"Labs work to formulate bomb detectors"
Tuesday, February 20, 2001
Labs work to formulate bomb detectors
Portals may lead to the future of airport security
By Chris Woodyard
ATLANTIC CITY -- Visitors to a federal laboratory here can step through a
portal into the future -- and hope that the alarm doesn't go off.
This explosives-detection portal, one of four prototypes at the Federal
Aviation Administration's technical center at the Atlantic City airport,
offers a good idea of what the future holds for airport security.
After years of testing, explosives-detection portals are nearing the
production stage. Experts say they could become as common in airports in a
few years as metal detectors -- which have been used since 1973 -- are
''This type of portal will become a standard part of the security
checkpoint,'' predicts Ken Wood, president of Barringer Instruments in
Warren, N.J., which makes one of the portals that the FAA is testing.
The FAA funded their development to find a way to easily spot potential
hijackers or terrorists trying to sneak aboard jets with explosives strapped
to their bodies.
The project was an outgrowth of the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing over
Lockerbie, Scotland, that killed 270, including 189 Americans, in 1988. A
Libyan intelligence operative was found guilty Jan. 31 of planting a
booby-trapped suitcase that downed the Boeing 747.
As bomb-detection technology makes its way into airports, harried passengers
could find themselves facing a double security obstacle course: first, a
metal detector; then, an explosives detector.
Like the metal detector, the explosives detector looks like a large doorway
that passengers step through -- only it's a lot bigger, an elaborate
creation that can include electronic voice instructions, a digital camera to
shoot a picture of passengers going through it and immense side cabinets as
big as the portal itself.
The portal, as the FAA calls it, is expensive. The companies involved in
testing hope to drive the cost of production models down to the FAA's goal
of about $100,000 each, which would still be four to 10 times the cost of
the typical metal detector at an airport.
These new machines, however, are a lot more sophisticated. Each has
''puffers'' -- blowers or suction nozzles -- that collect particle samples
off a person walking through. The samples then go to an analyzer, which
scans for microscopic traces of chemicals used to make bombs.
The machines are so sensitive that bomb handlers who had washed their hands
several times still set off the alarm when they went through, says R. Thomas
Chamberlain, a biochemist and lawyer who came out of retirement to direct
the FAA's explosives-detection program.
But overall, the number of hits is far less than would be found by the
typical metal detector. About four out of every 10,000 people set off the
model from Barringer, Wood says. Other companies reported similar results.
Each device basically works the same:
* An electronic display or voice directs you to step into the portal.
* On three of the machines, you are directed to turn sideways. A digital
camera photographs you. (Chamberlain says the photo is only retained if a
hit is registered.)
* You feel yourself enveloped by puffs of air. The sensation is like going
through a car wash without the water or soap.
* You step out, wait a moment and up pops the display at the operator's
A hit? Don't expect the annoying buzz of a metal detector. The
bomb-detecting portals work silently. After the 6 seconds it typically takes
to process each passenger, the operator sees an electronic display that
shows green, for no chemicals detected, to red, for a hit. Passengers would
then be directed to another area for a further check.
Thermo Detection, the maker of one unit, says a survey of 2,000 testers of
its SecurScan unit at Boston Logan airport a couple of years ago found only
about 1% who considered its use ''very inconvenient.''
Handheld explosives detectors have been available for years. They are in use
in some airports now to scan laptop computers or other hand luggage for a
bomb-making chemical residue.
They require vacuuming a sample off a person's clothes, as a DustBuster
would. Chamberlain's task was to develop a system that could scan a
planeload of people faster and without touching them.
For now, people testing continues on the four portals. Next stop will be the
federal laboratory in Idaho Falls, Idaho, where researchers make bombs.
There, bomb makers can be used as guinea pigs to make sure the machines work
Two portal makers aren't waiting to start production. Wood says Barringer is
making 10 portals that will be available for sale in the spring. Paul
Eisenbraun, vice president of Ion Track Instruments in Wilmington, Mass.,
says its EntryScan 3 will be launched as a product March 22.
Both companies say they hope to sell units to airports, although the FAA has
not established specifications for such passenger-screening equipment.
Chamberlain says he expects testing to end in a year. In time, he says he
hopes that the unit's size can be reduced and that it can be combined with a
metal detector so that travelers walk through one portal.
''We really feel like we've been doing something for the public,''
Chamberlain says. ''This is fun.''
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