On Saturday, October 31st, 2015, the Russian passenger plane Kogalymavia Flight 9268 crashed into the Sinai peninsula in Egypt, killing all 217 passengers and 7 crew members aboard. Although foul play was not suspected at first and it has not been clearly determined what brought the plane out of the sky, there is growing suspicion that the crash may indeed have been the result of an act of terror. Some intelligence reports indicate that operatives associated with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have claimed responsibility, although it is still unclear as of this writing if that is the case. The suggested link has spurred political action as Russia has already returned 11,000 of its citizens from Egypt. The British government has claimed that a Thomson Airways jet flying over a similar region of Egypt had to take evasive action to avoid a missile within a week of the Russian airplane crash.
Dozens of commercial passenger flights have been the setting of bombing events going as far back as October 1933, when a nitroglycerin bomb denoted and felled a Boeing 247 liner as it was flying over Chesterton, IN. U.S Code Title 49, which governs transportation laws, includes a section on explosive detection technologies which requires the deployment of those technologies pursuant to an order from the Undersecretary of Transportation for Security. Given the focus on airplane safety in the post-9/11 world and the recent suggestion that the world has suffered its latest passenger jet bombing, we thought we’d take some time to profile current technologies and development trends in that sector.
The U.S. Transportation Security Agency (TSA) employs explosive trace detection (ETD) practices at airport checkpoints as one bomb detection measure. ETD tests involve the chemical analysis of passengers and their luggage collected through swabbing. In February 2010, the TSA announced that it would increase ETD testing activities at American airports. But the TSA has been highly criticized in recent years for what others have seen as a failure to successfully apply tests to detect explosives. An internal investigation conducted by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) resulted in a 95 percent failure rate for the detection of explosives and banned weapons at airport security checkpoints. Others have reported being the target of false positive results because of hand soap products containing glycerin. Comments made recently by U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) were pretty blunt, stating that “When we test the TSA, they fail” in an interview with ABC News.
ETD isn’t the only scanning technology at use in U.S. airports. Millimeter-wave scanning machines scan passengers using low-level electromagnetic waves but high incidence rates for false positives caused by sweat have been reported. Backscatter X-ray machines, which apply radiation to passengers being scanned to detect explosives or weapons from the reflection of X-rays, have also been used but have limits in their ability to detect banned items which can be exploited. In 2011, the TSA announced that its airport scanning technologies would not be able to detect bombs implanted within a person’s body, which government reports in recent years have indicated is becoming a growing threat.
Given all of these issues with these conventional bomb detection methods, what are the innovations being developed in response? One Israeli explosive detection tech developer, Tracense Systems, has developed a biosensor nanotechnology which mimics the way dogs can sense explosives through smell and reportedly outperforms canine bomb detectors. The sense of smell for any animal, dog and human alike, involves the detection of molecules radiating away from an object; when you smell coffee, chemical receptors in your nose are actually coming into contact with molecules from the coffee. The Tracense bomb detection system involves hundreds of nano-sized sensors disposed on a silicon chip which can detect chemical traces up to few parts per trillion, which puts it in a similar order of magnitude to a dog’s sense of smell.
Israel is also the home of one of the more interesting developments in bomb detection, albeit a rather low-tech option. Security firm X-Test is working to train mice to sniff out explosive materials and it claims that the mice do a better job than dogs of detecting bombs. The test involves having passengers pass by caged mice which react in a certain way if they detect any of the materials which they’ve been trained to detect. The mice are cheaper to maintain than dogs, they don’t need walks and they can help complement the use of dogs, which are prone to fatigue.
The University of California, Berkeley, has also contributed to research and development in nanotechnology fields for detecting bombs. Mechanical engineering researchers have created a light-based plasmon sensor capable of detecting chemical traces up to 0.4 parts per billion. The optical sensor could be developed into a bomb-detecting chip for a handheld device which can be used at airport security checkpoints with a much higher degree of accurate results than ETD swab tests. The Berkeley sensor also does a better job at detecting pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN), a plastic used as an explosive material, which cannot be detected through conventional chemical tests.
Over on America’s eastern coast, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have innovated a bomb sensor system which utilizes the properties of proteins found in bee venom. Scientists at MIT took bombolitins from bee venom and used it to coat the inside of carbon nanotubes. Although carbon nanotubes naturally fluoresce, the bee venom helps the nanotubes to fluoresce at a specific wavelength when it detects nitro-aromatic compounds used in explosives such as TNT. The sensor is capable of detecting a single molecule of explosive nitro-aromatic material. In June 2013, MIT was issued U.S. Patent No. 8460608, titled Systems and Methods Related to Optical Nanosensors Comprising Photoluminescent Nanostructures. It protects a nanosensor for detecting an analyte and which has a photoluminescent nanostructure and a polymer comprising a polypeptide found in insect venom, the polypeptide being associated with the nanostructure to enable emissions of electromagnetic radiation which are distinguishable from each other.
It may have been Russia’s plane crashing in Egypt, but the events of late October have reverberated on our shores. In early November, TSA announced that it would be increasing security measures for inbound flights which are coming from certain, unspecified areas of the world. Between 2014 and 2020, the market for explosives and narcotics trace detection in the Middle East alone is expected to increase by 11.8 percent annually. Companies that might be able to take the basic research provided by UC Berkeley, MIT or elsewhere may do well in profiting from a new technology which helps to keep travelers safe, no matter where they are in the skies.
As with any high profile, tragic event we can expect to see a variety of innovative solutions come to light over the next 18 months as patent applications are filed and ultimately become published.