QinetiQ tests millimeter wave sensors for airport security

March 14, 2005
MALVERN, England, 14 March 2005. The "suicide bomber" clips a shrapnel-filled belt around his waist and buttons up his jacket to conceal it.

MALVERN, England, 14 March 2005. The "suicide bomber" clips a shrapnel-filled belt around his waist and buttons up his jacket to conceal it.

As he turns back and forth in front of a semi-circular white panel, about the size of a shower cubicle, a computer monitor shows the metal-packed cylinders standing out clearly in white against his body.

This is no real security alarm: it's a demonstration at the British technology group QinetiQ of a scanning device that sees under people's clothes to spot not just metal but other potential threats like ceramic knives or hidden drugs.

The electromagnetic technology, known as Millimeter Wave (MMW), is just one aspect of a potential revolution in security screening being pioneered at QinetiQ, formerly part of the research arm of the British defense ministry.

"Actually, detecting a suicide bomber in the lobby of an airport is not a great thing to happen," Simon Stringer, new managing director of QinetiQ's security business, says with British understatement.

"It's slightly better than having him do it in the departure lounge or perhaps on the plane, but you're still doing to have to deal with a significant problem."

That's why, he says, the trend for the future will be to move the scanners outside the terminal building and operate them in "stand-off mode" -- checking people from a distance before they even set foot inside.

The advantage is obvious: to spot potential attackers without alerting them to the fact, and gain precious seconds for security forces to prevent an attack.


Another prospect in store for air travelers is "hyperspectral sensing" that will check for chemicals called pheromones, secreted by the human body, which may indicate agitation or stress.

"People under stress tend to exude slightly different pheromones, and you can pick this up ... There are sensing techniques we're working on," Stringer said.

The stress may have an innocent cause, such as fear of flying, but could also betray the nervousness of a potential attacker. The point is to alert security staff to something unusual that may need further investigation.

As with MMW, the technology could function at a distance and without the need for people to wait in line. By conducting such checks while people are approaching the airport and moving through it, authorities could avoid bottlenecks and queues.


As the passenger proceeds through the terminal, the next layer of surveillance could be carried out through "cognitive software" which monitors his or her movements and sounds a silent alarm if it picks up an unusual pattern.

"Someone who's been back in and out of the same place three times or keeps bumping into the same people might be something that's worthy of further investigation ... I think that's really the sort of capabilities we're going to be looking at," Stringer said in an interview.

While many of these technologies are still under development, others have already been rolled out to clients by QinetiQ, which made group operating profit of 28 million pounds ($53.9 million) in the six months to last September.

Millimeter wave, for example, has been tested at airports and, in a different application, is being used by British immigration authorities and Channel Tunnel operator Eurotunnel to detect illegal immigrants trying to enter the country as stowaways in the back of trucks.

Stringer says the potential market for MMW runs into the hundreds of millions of dollars and goes well beyond the transport sector.

"We're spending quite a lot of time talking to multinationals who want to establish perimeter security systems around plant, installations and buildings," he said.

QinetiQ -- owned 30 percent by private equity group Carlyle and 56 percent by the British government -- expects rapid growth for its security business as it gears up for a stock market launch.


But how will ordinary people embrace the prospect of surveillance technology that sees through their clothes, checks how much they're sweating and tracks their airport wanderings between the tax-free shops and the toilets?

Stringer acknowledges that some might see this as George Orwell's Big Brother come true. "There are always going to be issues of privacy here and they're not to be belittled, they're important."

But he says smarter technology will actually make the checks less intrusive than those now in standard practice, such as being searched head to foot after setting off a metal detector alarm.

"Personally I find that more irritating than the idea of someone just scanning me as I walk through," he said.

"You're under surveillance in airports anyway. What you're looking at here is just being applied more intelligently."

For more information, see www.qinetiq.com.

By Mark Trevelyan, Security Correspondent, Reuters

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