Moscow bombing reignites anti-terror technology debate

Ellie Zolfagharifard

Senior Reporter

The jury is out on whether unobtrusive and covert detection of suspicious targets offers better security or if more obvious deterrents, such as body scanners and foot soldiers, should be used.

One industry source told The Engineer: ‘I have seen covert systems working in “lab” conditions with individuals targeted. A busy airport departure or arrivals lounge is an altogether different ball game. Anywhere with a lot of people milling about causes these machines huge problems and – certainly at the moment – renders them pretty ineffective.’

But with visible technologies such as body scanners failing to live up to expectations, engineers haven’t given up on developing an effective hidden security network. In May last year, The Engineer covered a €4.3m EU-funded research programme named LOTUS (Localisation of threat substances in urban society).

The aim of LOTUS was to develop a mobile detection system that can sniff out homemade explosives. The systems could be mounted onto police cars to detect whether elevated levels of suspicious substances were in the area during routine patrols.

A similar concept has been undertaken by the HAMLeT (Hazardous Material Localization and Person Tracking) project that uses a sensory network to identify and track people traveling on busy transport corridors. The group hopes to gather chemical and kinetic information from sensors hidden in air vents and wall fixtures, as well as with lasers pulsing through corridors.

In the arrivals and departures lounge, a project named SUBITO (Surveillance of Unattended Baggage and Identification and Tracking of the Owner) has been attempting to develop an intelligent CCTV system that can track people who have left bags unattended. Using artificial intelligence, the system may be able to determine whether someone has put a bag down for an innocent reason or whether they have more sinister motives.

Another CCTV-replacement system has been developed by OmniPerception. Known as CheckPoint.S, it can be used to identify individual faces in real time by emitting near-infrared light then using the reflected waves to scan an individual’s features.

All of these projects are up against major technical hurdles. While the sheer amount of research is reassuring, much of the development work remains at an early stage. Even if they do succeed, can technology ever fully address the security challenge the world is facing? And if so, are we going about the right way about it?