Bomb detector

The US Transportation Security Administration has purchased Smiths Detection’s Sentinel II explosive detection walk-through trace portals. Dave Wilson reports.


‘The optimist thinks this is the best of all possible worlds. The pessimist fears it is true.’ – J. Robert Oppenheimer.

In the aftermath of last week’s terrorist bombings in London, respected and not so respected trade journals and web sites have been avariciously looking for some aspect of the excitement ( Shouldn’t that be horror? – Ed.) that they too can hang their editorial hat on.

Sure if you’re a BBC or CNN reporter, it’s pretty obvious why you’d be covering the event. But perhaps it’s not quite so blindingly apparent if you’re a reporter on a publication that covers the electronic engineering field. Or is it?

Well, think again. Because last week, many disparate trade magazines desperately tried to justify why they should grab a piece of the terrorist action too by devoting enormous amounts of space to the subject – most of it completely irrelevant to their readership.

One reporter at one such trade magazine took it upon himself to rapidly phone up a bunch of eminent university professors to ask them when a bomb sniffing device might become available that might prevent such tragedies from ever happening again.

Sadly, as the magazine was in such a desperate rush to get this ‘exclusive news’ out to their readers, accuracy was blown out the window.

‘The solutions won’t come cheap, and it will be at least a year before devices sensitive enough to prevent disasters like last week’s bombings are deployed,’ the story noted.

Had the journo in question been in less of a hurry, he might have checked the web site of none other than Smiths Detection first.

Because last month, that very same company announced that the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) had purchased its Sentinel II explosive detection walk-through trace portals for deployment at various airports across the US to improve security.

In use, the rather clever portals operate automatically, passing air gently over a person from head to toe, releasing any particles that are naturally absorbed by or cling to a person’s clothing or body.

These particles are then drawn by a vacuum and collected for analysis at the passenger’s feet. Detection of particles or vapours can indicate that a person is either carrying an explosive device or has come into contact with explosive substances.

And there’s really no reason that they couldn’t be deployed at railway stations or tube stations here in the UK either. Right now. In fact, why aren’t they being deployed right now?

Please don’t tell me that it’s because these wonderful systems might slow people down a little? In this day and age, I’m of the opinion that a little less haste might not be a bad thing. Especially for some reporters I know who work on the Internet.

A reader replies

Has it occurred to you that it may be pointless to even attempt this. Do you think it makes any difference to a suicide bomber if he detonates at a turnstile in a crowded concourse or actually in the tunnel or aeroplane? If the sniffer detects his bomb, the barrier closes and an alarm sounds – won’t he just pull the rip cord?

Paul Zwolinski CEng MIMech E