The alleged plot to blow up U.S.-bound airliners from Britain last month underscored one of the weakest links in air travel. Five years after the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, security authorities have made little progress detecting liquid explosives in carry-on luggage with existing technology. But an Israeli startup called TraceGuard Technologies now says it has devised technology that can sniff out solid and liquid bombs faster and more accurately than any alternatives.
The company is planning its first commercial installations in December at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv and at a security checkpoint between Israel and the occupied West Bank. The initial system, called CompactSafe, is designed to detect explosive residues on the surface of—and, more importantly, inside—small electronic devices such as laptop PCs, iPods, cameras, and cellular phones. A second model, called CarrySafe, will be able to detect liquid explosives in larger carry-on bags when it rolls out in 2007.
The key breakthrough: The objects under examination are placed in a sealed enclosure that fills up with compressed air. That loosens particles of explosive materials, which can then be sensed in a matter of seconds by a conventional trace detector. Both the CompactSafe and CarrySafe will be located next to existing carry-on baggage X-ray machines.
The British plot was foiled thanks to intelligence that let British police nab the alleged terrorists before they were able to sneak explosives aboard planes. But if the plotters had made it to the airport, would they have been detected? "With the techniques currently in use, it's doubtful the terrorists would have been caught at the airport," says Ehud Ganani, chairman and CEO of TraceGuard, which was founded in 2005.
TESTING THE DETECTORS. Indeed, the primary method used today to spot explosives or other suspect substances in carry-on bags is to swab the outside with a small cloth and then analyze the tissue in a trace detector. But "swabbing has proven to be only 20% effective at best, and is extremely time-consuming," says Ganani, who was previously the CEO of Israel Military Industries and worked at Israel's top secret Rafael Arms Development Authority.
TraceGuard's novel approach is based on work done in 2002 by Israeli physicist and materials expert Fredy Ornath. A weapons-development consultant for Israel's defense industries, Ornath turned his attention after September 11 to finding more efficient ways to detect explosives in all forms. He's now the chief scientist at TraceGuard.
At the company's lab near Tel Aviv, explosives experts spend their days trying to outsmart their own detection devices. An adjoining storage room is filled with carry-on bags of all shapes and sizes, as well as electronic devices and innocent-looking cosmetics and toiletry items that serve as testers. "We try to stay one step ahead of the terrorists by placing explosives in the most innocent-looking items," says Gil Perlberg, vice-president for marketing and engineering at TraceGuard. The team of experts is led by a former policeman who counts years of experience with suicide bombers and liquid explosives such as TATP, which reportedly was an explosive the British plotters planned to use.
COMING TO AMERICA? To get the technology to market, TraceGuard has signed an agreement with Hawthorne (Calif.)-based Rapiscan Systems (OSIS), a leader in weapons detection and baggage screening. The deal will focus on integrating TraceGuard's devices with existing Rapiscan equipment. TraceGuard hopes that teaming up with a well-known company in the field will ease breaking into the crucial U.S. airport market.
To back the push, TraceGuard, which is traded over the counter in the U.S., is in the process of raising $10 million in private equity. It plans a major marketing effort in 2007.
Next up: the air cargo market. "Only 2% of air cargo is currently checked for explosive traces," says Ganani. With terrorists always looking for new ways to carry out their attacks, companies like TraceGuard are scrambling to stay ahead of the bad guys.