As the cat-and-mouse tussle with terrorists intensifies, rodents could be enlisted to keep the skies safe. An Israeli security firm claims that mice can detect explosives far more effectively than humans, dogs or machines.
If the system proposed by X-Test is adopted, airport security checkpoints of the future will deploy small, furry creatures to trap terrorists.
The firm’s vice-president, Yuval Amsterdam, is a former bomb-disposal expert for the Israel Defense Forces. He is now developing what he says is the most sophisticated explosive detection system ever conceived – with mice at its heart. “They’re as good as dogs as far as their ability to sense, but they’re smaller and easier to train,” Mr Amsterdam said. “They’re cheap, and you don’t have to take them for a walk. Once they are trained, they become bio-sensors.”
The mice will not run loose over passengers and their bags, but will be contained inside cages at security checkpoints. They will discreetly sniff people and possessions for the substances they have been trained to identify, and signal when they detect a threat. Because mice can be trained in large numbers by machine, they can produce much more reliable results, said Mr Amsterdam.
Current aviation security is full of holes. It relies on metal detectors and X-ray screening for cabin baggage. Only a few passengers are selected for an explosive trace test, which involves swabbing a surface such as a laptop keyboard or cabin-bag zip and testing the swab in an explosives trace detector.
The developers hope mice will be able to identify individuals carrying explosives implanted within the body – regarded in the industry as a key threat to aircraft.
Philip Baum, editor of Aviation Security International, welcomed the innovation: “We do not currently have explosive detection capability in our portals, or an accepted way of detecting ‘internal carries’. The mice just might plug that security hole.”
At present no UK airport has plans to recruit rodents to tail terrorists but they could be one element in the emerging “risk-based” approach to security, where individuals are profiled in advance and assigned a risk profile. A passenger with an unusual travel history is likely to arouse more interest than a family going on holiday.
The industry is moving towards the concept of “dynamic lanes” at airport checkpoints in which passengers no longer need to separate laptops and liquids from their bags, and take off belts and shoes. Specific security measures depend upon the passenger’s risk profile.
Adrienne Gibbs, implementation manager for Iata’s Smart Security programme, last week told the Body Search 2015 conference at Heathrow: “We’re challenging industry and technology providers to think about how they can apply an additional layer of security without making passengers feel they have been targeted.”
Mr Amsterdam also believes the deployment of mice could extend beyond detecting threats to combating smuggling:
“We can teach them anything that has a scent – whether it’s explosives, whether it’s drugs, whether it’s ivory in Africa. Anything that has a smell.”
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