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Aviation Safety: The Technology of Security

Some would argue Canadian security is an accident waiting to happen.


October 2, 2007
By Steve Leslie

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A few weeks ago, as I passed through the security checkpoint at Halifax
Airport, an official asked me to open my laptop computer. I expected
the official would ask me to turn the computer on. Instead, she
produced a thin wand-like device, similar to a riding crop. A small
piece of cotton cloth was attached to the end of the wand. She swept
the end over the surface of my computer. I asked the purpose of this
gadget. I was reasonably certain the device was used to detect trace
residue or minute particles that might be used for explosives. Until
now, I had not seen this tool used at any airport in Canada.

Canada is a world leader in the development of explosive detection
technology. Lorne Elias, a Canadian scientist, invented one of the
first explosive vapour detectors or EVDs. The Elias invention is
arguably one of the best and most effective devices used to sniff out
concealed bombs. It uses chemical analysis and has been the benchmark
of explosive detection technology in international aviation security.

Elias is now retired after 35 years with the National Research Council
(NRC) in Ottawa. However, he continues his work as a private
consultant. Although his work is kept largely under wraps, the
terrorist attacks of 2001 have added new urgency to his research. He is
working on equipment capable of ‘sniffing’, in less than 10 seconds,
telltale particle and vapour trails left by explosives.

During
the 1970s, Elias headed a research team that had created a device to
chemically sniff vapours from pesticides. In collaboration with
Transport Canada, he was hired to start testing existing commercial
bomb-detection devices. He soon realized that his techniques were more
effective than the commercial devices he was testing. Soon after, he
developed a made-in- Canada portable bomb sniffer, the EVD-1. The
vapour detector picks up and measures trace amounts of vapour left by
dynamite and other explosives.

In 1985, Air India Flight 182, a
Boeing 747 enroute from Toronto to Bombay via London, blew up off the
coast of Ireland, killing all 329 persons on board. The RCMP believed a
bomb was hidden in luggage sent from Vancouver to the connecting Air
India flight at Toronto. At that point, Canadian airport security took
on a new urgency. In an effort to bolster security, the Canadian
government ordered 50 EVDs for airport use.

Three years later, Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Scotland on its way to New York.