By Mark Trevelyan, Security Correspondent
MALVERN, England (Reuters) - The "suicide bomber" clips a
shrapnel-filled belt around his waist and buttons up his jacket to
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
"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
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
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.
ARE YOU SWEATING TOO MUCH?
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
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
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
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."
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