For the first time ever a hand-held scanner that screens bottles for liquid explosives is being tested at some airports across the country. The technology was unveiled this week.
The device is called 'PaxPoint.' It weighs less than two and a half pounds and looks like a cross between a gun and wand. The manufacturer ICx Technologies designed it specifically to help screen house-hold bottled liquids for explosives without being opened.
It works by being held about an inch from a container to "sniff" chemical vapors. A display on the device shows a numeric value for a potential threat. Sampling is done almost in real time which means little delay. According Mark Prather, ICx Technologies' explosive detection manager, what makes this device unique is that it can sense vapors even if a container is thick and tightly sealed. Similar scanners have not been able to do this.
The price ranges from $20,000 to $25,000 for each device although the cost can be lower depending on the quantity ordered.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) announced yesterday that six airports (Miami International, Newark Liberty International, Los Angeles International, Detroit Metro, Las Vegas McCarran and Boston Logan International) have and are testing the device and told CBS News the agency has purchased 15 so far.
But when the TSA introduced the device it was presented as a 'FIDO.' 'FIDO' is another portable detector produced by ICx Technologies currently being used in Iraq and Afghanistan to detect military grade explosives in things like plastics and powders.
When we contacted the manufacturer to find out more, we were told that the device being tested by the TSA is in fact not a 'FIDO' but rather the prototype 'PaxPoint' which has never been used by the military.
CBS News informed the TSA about the error which they said was due to a miscommunication they had with ICx Technologies. Despite the confusion, adding the machines to passenger screening could be a promising move by the TSA.
"If it really works, it'll be a good thing," said security analyst Charles Slepian. In order to determine long-term effectiveness, Slepian says not only should 'PaxPoint' truly be able to penetrate thick containers but it should also be easy to use and have a low false-positive rate. The manufacturer claims the device does all three of these things.
TSA Spokesperson Ellen Howe says if all goes well, the TSA anticipates deploying up 200 of the scanners at the nation's busiest airports by the end of the year. She also added that the device is "mobile and flexible" and in addition to passenger screening it can also be used to screen items carried by employees at the back of the airport.
The hand-held scanner however would not eliminate the ban on liquid, gels and aerosols in carry-on luggage for passengers. It is meant simply to add another layer of security.