In many ways, the current restrictions on carrying liquids, aerosols and gels (LAGs) in hand luggage are the bane of airport security, as they slow up security lanes and confuse and frustrate passengers.
The ban, which since August 2006 has limited passengers to taking 100ml containers of liquids onto aircraft, was only meant to be a temporary measure until new technology was devised to allow the restrcitions to be lifted.
Six years on, Europe appears to be leading the way in terms of relaxing the restrictions, the European Union currently debating whether to push ahead with an April 2013 deadline for a lifting of the ban on LAGs.
Indeed, the European Commission has ordered an independent study into the feasibility of a relaxation of the ban, including interaction with 14 airports that are currently trialling the available technology in an attempt to find the best way to maintain checkpoint security while keeping false alarm rates low and maximising passenger throughput.
A decision on whether the commission will go ahead and lift the ban next year is due any time.
So what kind of new LAGs or Liquid Explosives Detection System (LEDS) technology is out there, and what might prove best for your airport?
One company involved in the trials is Smiths Detection. The firm has shown continuous improvement in performance and achieved the necessary ECAC (European Civil Aviation Conference) standards to support the screening of LAGs as required by the EC.
“The trials have been a very useful exercise and the European Commission is due to report on its findings very soon as part of the next steps towards lifting the ban,” says Magnus Ovilius, Smiths Group’s senior vice president for government relations.
One of Smiths’ most important creations is its Advanced Threat Identification X-ray (aTix) technology, which provides high levels of security and consistency in detecting dangerous substances, along with optimal configuration of checkpoints and clear communication to passengers.
Indeed, aTiX was the first liquid explosive detection system to receive ECAC Performance Standard 2, Type C certification in preparation for the phased easing of the liquids ban in hand luggage.
The system captures multiple views, while its software algorithms compare atomic number and material density to detect the threats.
“The plan is for liquids to be carried on board after going through the scanner in a small separate container,” says Ovilius. “The future for LAGs is most likely more advancements along the same lines, while factoring in that there is no single ‘magic bullet’ to solve the problem. There will always be a layered approach to security.”
Another leader in this area is Link Microtek. The company recently announced that its EMILI 2 liquid identification system had achieved ECAC Performance Standard 2.
EMILI 2 employs patented multimode microwave near-field sensor technology and is classed as Type B equipment. This means it can scan individual containers non-invasively.
And, it is capable of identifying an unopened plastic container, glass or ceramic bottle in under a second, making it fastest Type B equipment currently on the market.
The next generation
Kromek is one of the biggest security technology companies in the world. The firm has been involved in developing the next generation of X-ray detection systems for some years.
CEO, Arnab Basu, believes – with some justification it seems – that Kromek’s technology is going to be a replacement for “most” of the big stream X-ray devices over the next decade.
“We have a bottle-scanner which is a Type B certified system. The uniqueness of the technology is completely agnostic of the container we’re scanning. We can scan metal containers, thick plastics, cardboard, Tetra Pak, aluminium foil wrappers, anything.
“These are big challenges in the industry and we can go through any material. At the end of the scan we give a simple pass or fail answer based on the item being deemed safe or unsafe.”
This off-the-shelf product was the first product to be certified as a Standard 2 Type B system in the very first test carried out in Europe in 2010. It is currently in situ at around 10 airports across the world.
“Although there are products approved in each of the categories the EC has set standards in, there has been delay after delay and indecision in Europe for implementation and freeing up the passage of liquids that we all expected,” notes Basu.
“The industry has done its job by responding to regulation and technical challenges, it has delivered products which have gone through regulatory approval processes and successfully passed the standards that were set.
“The onus is now on the regulators, airports and the user community to deploy these technologies.”
Two years ago, American-based firm L-3 Security & Detection Systems was identified by the TSA as a principal vendor for liquid detection, and the product selected was its ACX Multiview X-ray system.
“The products are now being fielded at airports. We expect that in the near term they’ll be deploying enhanced software,” says Bill Frain, senior vice-president of business development for L-3.
ACX is a platform driven by algorithms. As threats evolve – whether they be liquids or the likes of laptops and homemade explosives – L-3 develops additional algorithms and adds extra computing power for processing information.
Over the next three years the company is looking to improve the software capability on the algorithms to meet the current or revised threat listing.
During this period Frain also expects to see a growing harmonisation between Europe and the United States.
“I know that the TSA and the Europeans are becoming more aligned over LAGs,” he says. “This is great from a vendor’s perspective because you want to have some level of consistency as this means you don’t require several different versions of your products out there.”
According to Frain, today’s LAG detection market is seeking solutions that have high levels of detection with low false alarms.
Although security around its development is high, L-3 is currently working on a product that they hope will do just this, whilst maintaining throughput at the checkpoint.
“The buzzwords today are about risk-based security,” says Frain. “I think you’re going to see more of that in future, where you may have varying technologies at the checkpoint.
“I think you’ll also see behavioural detection and other solutions out there to help overall checkpoint capabilities.”
So if the technology is out there and available to buy, why is it not in place already and what is the hold up in lifting the LAGs restrictions?
As Basu has indicated, the delay appears to be down to the regulators and the fact that airports and a number of industry stakeholders have yet to fully embrace the new technology.
ACI World, for example, is among a number of industry bodies who are calling for the ban to remain in place until the LAGs detection technology currently being developed, has matured and can offer a seamless, rather than a more confused security process for passengers.
“We believe that it would be better to postpone the European Commission’s planned April 2013 lifting of the LAGs restrictions until technology is more able to meet the operational needs of airports, so that service levels to passengers can be improved with the lifting of the restriction,” says ACI World’s deputy director general, Craig Bradbrook.
Watch this space for further developments.