The failed Christmas Day plot to blow up an airliner flying into the Detroit Metro Airport has heightened the debate over security in America’s airports, leading to concerns about how invasive security screening should be. An Ann Arbor-based company is developing new technology that might answer that question.

Rob Risser, chief financial officer of Advanced Photonix, Inc., said the firm has been experimenting for years to harness electromagnetic waves called terahertz. The technology has already been applied in aerospace and pharmaceutical applications, among others. The company believes it could now be used to help airport security efforts.

“We’re using pulsed terahertz technology,” Risser said. “That frequency interacts with organic materials that allows us to determine threats that would be concealed threats — under clothing, in boxes, that nature.”

In 1992, Risser co-founded Picometrix — a supplier of optical receivers and terahertz — with Steven Williamson, who was a researcher at the University’s Center for Ultrafast Optical Science. Now a subsidiary of Advanced Photonix, Picometrix developed the terahertz semiconductor.

With a wavelength between that of visible light and microwaves, terahertz waves either pass through or ricochet off objects and can be picked up by a sensor that would vibrate “like a tuning fork,” Risser said. The frequency of the vibration, he added, would identify the kind of material hit by the waves.

Risser — who received his MBA from the University in 1978 — said he believes that the terahertz technology could be used in airports in lieu of current scanning methods.

Recently, the Transportation Security Administration has started using full-body scanners, which allow airport officials to see through clothing to find concealed weapons, explosives or other restricted materials.

According to a TSA statement released in Jan. 3, there will be new security measures for all United States and international aircrafts flying to the U.S.

“TSA directed the increase use of enhanced screening technologies and mandates threat-based and random screening for majority passengers on U.S. bound international flights,” the statement said.

Risser said he thinks the terahertz technology will help put concerns about privacy to rest — while still maintaining a secure environment for air travel.

“(Terahertz) allows us to do that (scanning) without the imaging concerns, the strip search,” Risser said. “You can just point it and click it, and if any material is picked up a red light comes on, and then you send in the guy who tackles people.”

Risser said terahertz technology is superior to other devices currently being employed by the TSA because of its ability to detect a variety of dangerous materials.

“Metal detectors will tell you if you’ve got metal, and you need to have a fair amount of it,” he said, adding that they still would not be able to pick up the metal in a belt buckle. “So those aren’t very effective for plastic explosives or ceramic weapons.”

In addition, travelers won’t have to worry about health problems resulting from the new technology because the waves are at a low frequency, according to Risser.

“Terahertz is safe,” he said. “It’s unlike X-rays that do damage to DNA… You get more terahertz out of light bulbs than you get from our terahertz generator.”

But Risser said, despite the technology’s laboratory success, it could be one to two years before terahertz scanners find their way into airports. TSA, he said, has agreed to fund preliminary work but has not yet agreed to fund an airport prototype.

“(TSA) would have to decide that they would want to deploy something like this,” Risser said. “Right now, they just tend to throw more people at the problems, rather than an advanced sensor.”

Douglas Laird, president of the Nevada-based airline security consulting firm Laird & Associates, Inc., said Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab’s failed attempt to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit showed that more needs to be done to protect airline travelers.

Laird said though he does not know the specifics of the terahertz technology, TSA has to implement the full-body scanners that it has at its disposal until terahertz has been put through the necessary field tests.

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