X-rays that lead to Camp X-ray



 

 

 

By Mark Huband

Financial Times, 10 May 2005

While counter-terrorism agencies may find it difficult to get into the minds of extremists, technological advances mean they can at least get into their baggage, shoes, cars, lorries and even their clothes.

The terrorist attacks in the US in 2001 and growing concern about the proliferation of chemical and biological weapons, have accelerated the pace of technical efforts to stay ahead of the threats.

The result has been tripled sales of detection equipment and greater use of core technology, which is now being applied across the increasingly blurred line between civil and military protection.

Down a quiet road crossing the rolling fields of northern Germany, an unmarked container fixed to a lorry sits outside a nondescript office. This is the latest in a range of detection equipment that has shown the versatility of scientific discoveries made long before the “global war on terror” became a fact of life.

The lorry transports a mobile cargo x-ray unit comprising a fold-away arch through which vehicles pass.

On a screen inside the container, hidden cargoes buried behind declared goods emerge in an array of bright colours – the operator can even change the colour from a startling yellow to a gaudy pink.

The €9m (£6.1m) portable unit is the latest application of x-ray technology from Smiths Heimann, the world market leader in many of the detection technologies that the company has sold to 140 countries.

The company was formed in 2002 with the acquisition of Heimann by the detection arm of Smiths Group, the UK detection, aerospace and medical company. After a number of European and US acquisitions, Smiths Detection has used its established technologies for new applications and seen sales advance from about £50m in 1999 to about £350m last year.

“It’s the same basis of technology,” says Stephen Phipson, Smiths Detection group managing director. “But depending on whether it’s airport security, port security or a customs authority, the machinery can be fine-tuned for each type of application.”

He adds: “In ports, you look for contraband as well as having sensors for explosives. Contraband and security have converged.”

A succession of acquisitions since 1999 has enabled Smiths Detection to reduce the amount of time taken between the emergence of a new security requirement and the provision of equipment to meet the need.

“It usually takes a few years from an incident to the introduction of new equipment,” says Roland Müsse, the company’s Europe president. “There is only one limitation – money.”

It took eight years to invent the explosive detection system based on x-ray technology that was prompted by the Lockerbie bomb of 1988.

Smiths’ most recent acquisition is Farran, a spin-out of Cork University in Ireland, which has developed a people-screening technology using millimetre waves to study the surface of a body.

“It’s far advanced from the use of metal detectors,” says Mr Müsse. “This is the next generation. It can detect from imaging and can see if somebody has an explosive belt.”

However, the new technology has raised concern about privacy. Mr Phipson comments: “Privacy is the key issue: how much of the body is shown. You’re effectively naked. It sees through your clothes. Some systems are too intrusive. But there’s also a balance between through-put and detection as airports don’t want the systems to be slow.”

The technical and marketing flexibility that has led to systems originally designed to trace contraband being used to detect material that could be used by terrorists has also been applied to the building of a growing market in battlefield kit in response to concerns about chemical and biological weapons.

“In general, the concern over the last 20 years has been to be able to detect more things,” says Bob Turner, vice-president for technology at Smiths’ UK base in Watford.

“The thrust for the next generation will be to have tools that can detect a wider range of materials,” he adds, describing the current technology as “third generation in the chemical detection and second generation in the biological detection”.

The company expects that all troops will eventually carry a portable chemical detector as standard.

Mr Turner puts the size of the US military market for Smiths’ detectors at about 240,000 and the UK market at about 18,000.

But concern about terrorists’ use of weapons of mass destruction has also led the company to expect increased demand from civilian emergency services.

“The genie is out of the bottle when it comes to the information about how to produce the chemical or biological weapons,” Mr Turner says. “Regarding botulinum production, for example, it’s so easy. Ricin is also pretty easy to produce.”

 

 

© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2008.