Puff of Air Could Boost Airport Security

Hitachi says it’s found a way to improve airport security without disrupting passenger movement. It uses the same technology as some recent suggestions, though the implementation looks a bit more credible.

The system, developed with the help of railway signaling firm Nippon Signal and the University of Yamanishi, would scan both users and their boarding cards or tickets for explosive devices. It uses mass spectrometry, which measures the mass-to-charge ratio of particles and figures out their chemical structure. The idea is to pick up any signs of somebody who has handled explosive-related materials.

Previous reports have suggested the US government is working on similar technology, though in that story the system would supposedly scan everyone in a lengthy radius and figure out everything from whether they’d handled drugs to what they had for breakfast. Even if that story lived up to its billing, there’d be some major privacy issues to deal with.

The Hitachi plan is a little more low-key. The company says it wants to overcome the problem that the most effective point of personal security (checking somebody right before they get on the plane) is the least suited to lengthy checks because there’s a fixed number of people who would have to be checked in a short time with little or no leeway.

It’s suggesting two ways to use mass spectrometry to solve this. Firstly, scanners used to swipe boarding passes could be adjusted to also check for explosives particles. Secondly, the boarding gate itself could be designed to check the passenger’s hands, a process that would involve a quick puff of air and thus little if any disruption. The company says it could scan at a rate equivalent to 1,200 passengers an hour.

Hitachi also suggests that such a process might also be useful for situations where large crowds gather, but airport-style scanning is either impractical or unwelcome, such as at major sports events.

The most obvious drawback is that it might struggle with people who wore gloves when handling explosives, or have put gloves on for the flight; the system can pick up traces on clothes or bags, but that might mean making a larger scanner that didn’t fit a gate so neatly.

The Australian notes another problem is that the system would pick up people who’d handled materials such as fertilizers (farmers) or nitroglycerin used by angina patients.

(Picture credit: Hitachi)