The TSA Screener You'll Actually Enjoy (Maybe)

We all know the drill with airport security: Pockets empty, laptop out, shoes and dignity off. Degrading, but anything for safety, right? Next-gen Explosive Trace Detectors promise that we'll at least get to keep our shoes on.

An explosives trace-detection portal—more commonly known as a "puffer machine," because puffees are blasted with multiple puffs of air to dislodge particles trapped on hair, the body, clothing and shoes, which are collected and analyzed by the machine—is used to detect trace amounts of explosives and drugs. Normally it's used as a secondary device in addition to the standard "strangers with benefits" pat downs and backscatter x-rays.

The older generation of machines, like the General Electric EntryScan or Smiths Detection Sentinel series, ran analysis using Ion-Mobility Spectrometry (IMS). IMS is quick but sloppy, capable of accommodating up 180 travelers an hour, though it's prone to high false alarm rates and frequent breakdowns. Syagen's Guardian represents the new generation of trace detection systems. It uses Mass Spectrometry (MS) for its analysis which, while a bit slower with the results, operates on a much wider range of explosives (about 16 traditional and IED compounds). By comparison, IMS detects only five compounds.

MS is also anywhere from 10-100 times more accurate than IMS. This results in fewer false alarms (less than 1 percent false positive rate) and, therefore, fewer encounters with over-zealous TSA agents. The Guardian is so accurate, in fact, that it is able to detect contraband in shoes while the passenger is still wearing them. With this technology, one day Americans may be able to rejoin the rest of the civilized world and not be forced to walk through the airport in our socks.

Here is the device in action at the Denver Airport:

Top image: Allen J. Schaben/LOS ANGELES TIMES

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