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Sat, Mar 02, 2002 - Page 21 News List

Screening device sniffs for clues against terrorism

SECURITY A device called The Sentinel unveiled at the Singapore air show can detect microscopic particles of explosives, chemicals or narcotics from the body or clothes, making airport check points far more effective


David Whithers, support director for Smiths Aerospace, walks through the company's airport screening device. The device detects explosives and illicit drugs by blowing air on those who pass through and then sampling for particles.


Hijackers and drug smugglers face a new line of defense in The Sentinel, a machine that vacuums microscopic particles off the body to test for explosives, chemical agents and narcotics.

"If you take a grain of table salt and chop it up a thousand times... it's going to detect it. The chances are extremely good," Alan Sewell, a product support engineer with US-based Barringer Instruments Inc, told Reuters at the Singapore air show.

Concerns about security at airports have become paramount since the September 11 hijack attacks on the United States and other recent in-flight incidents.

Sewell said the walk-through device, which can be used at airport check points, was designed to stop the likes of alleged shoe bomber Richard Reid, who faces charges for attempting to set off explosives in his sneakers on board a plane.

When a person stands inside the machine, nozzles spew out compressed air to dislodge tiny particles trapped on the body and clothing before they are sucked into a collection duct for nearly instant analysis. Seven people can be checked per minute.

Sewell said people initially were a little startled by the air jets but added it was a better option than being frisked.

"It's not that obtrusive. I don't have to pull you over and search you," he said.

Without going into specifics, he said The Sentinel was now being used in the Middle East. He declined to name any countries that had expressed interest in the device.

The trace detection unit at the heart of the device is already being used at airports in the United States, Australia, Britain, Malaysia and Hong Kong.

Sewell said each machine cost about US$200,000. A smaller, quieter version will be out later this year.

Other security gadgets on display at the air show included a portable kit allowing pilots to operate an aircraft even if the cockpit is engulfed by smoke.

"Many aviation authorities are requiring now that cockpit doors be sealed and locked," said Jonathan Parker, chief operating officer at Emergency Vision Assurance Systems.

"Pilots no longer have the ability to ventilate smoke from cockpit fires so it's even more important now that regulators and airlines consider this product."

The bag can be inflated for two-and-a-half hours with a battery-operated pump, allowing the pilot to see the instruments and flight path through the clean air inside the device.

The system, now used mainly in the United States by customers operating smaller passenger aircraft for corporate travel, has drawn the interest of several Asian carriers.

"We are negotiating with three Asian airlines," Parker said, declining to name them. "We expect to make an announcement within six months."

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