Airport passenger security has evolved at a blistering pace over the past decade, but like many mad-scrambles in any industry there are false starts, long journeys down the wrong road and conflicting opinions. One thing we can all agree on is this … the very serious threat of an explosive being brought on board an aircraft is one that is not readily detected by the majority of passenger focused aviation security tactics.
Small malleable explosives, such as C-4 and Semtex, can easily be concealed and packed in such a manner to hide their existence. Explosives are completely undetectable by airport screening scanners when packed inside someone or in electronics and are rarely detected through traditional Explosives Trace Detection (ETD) swabs.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) originally deployed 95 Explosives Trace Detection Portals, known as “Puffers,” at a cost of US$160,000 per scanner in 34 airports to detect the threat of explosives particles on passengers. In 2008, less than four years after their initial deployment, the US$15,200,000 hardware was shelved due to its high failure rate and consistency of false positive alerts … not to mention the hardware being rendered useless by dust and humidity.
Following the Explosives Trace Detection Portals the TSA unveiled two types of Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) scanners, Millimeter-wave technology from L3 Communications and Backscatter technology from Rapiscan to completely scan people for concealed items. The agency has now moved away from the backscatter scanners due to a variety of reasons and as effective as the L3 Communications millimeter-wave AIT scanner is, it cannot detect explosives.
So with all the technology available to us, what is the only known effective solution? Dogs.
Traditionally explosives dogs tend to be directed to their search target, a stationary target, such as a trashcan or cargo pallet. The traditional training of explosives dogs renders them ineffective when it comes to the challenging task of seeking out explosives in an active environment, such as an airport. To better utilize the unique abilities of a dog’s nose to detect explosives a new evolution of training has begun quietly entering service over the past few years. The new training, referred to as Vapour Wake Detection, is roughly two years old. The TSA’s first Passenger Screening Canines graduated from the Auburn University’s vapour wake detection training program in April 2011 and entered in-the-field live environment service at more that 20 airports in early 2013. (The TSA refers to these dogs as Passenger Screening Canines as the term Vapour Wake Canine is trademarked by Auburn University),
As more Vapour Wake dogs enter service with the TSA, and other transportation security agencies such as Amtrak’s Police Department, they have been changing the landscape of how explosives are detected in an active environment. Unlike traditional canine explosives teams sweeping predetermined objects for trace elements of an explosive, a vapor wake dogs seeks the trailing scent of the explosives … or it’s vapour wake … locks onto that scent and tracks it back to the person giving off the trail.
Presently the Transportation Security Administration is funded for 120 Passenger Screening Canine teams and has 90 of these dogs in service, with two of them being owned and handled by the Los Angeles World Airports Police.
The uniqueness of the vapour wake dog training allows these dogs to also be trained as a ‘mix discipline” dog. Presently 52 of the TSA’s dogs are trained as traditional explosives detection canines as well as vapour wake detection while patroling major airports in their mixed-duty capacity.
Given the on going issues related to the effectiveness of AIT scanners, a more effective approach in the future may be the return of a simple walk through metal detector in conjunction with vapour wake Passenger Screening Canines. The dog’s nose is capable of picking up a scent at a significant distance allowing it to cover multiple screening lanes, while detecting a primary threat to aviation security. All other viable threats can be detected by a far less expensive walk through metal detector, where as an explosive, regardless of where it is hidden will leave a vapour trail for the canine to pick up and follow.
There is no perfect solution to aviation security, but sometimes technology is not the answer, when more effective solutions are available and offer considerable advantages.