Va. firm pitches bomb-detecting device

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A Reston defense and security company is urging the U.S. and foreign governments to take a closer look at a new technology that can detect suicide bombers before they strike.

QinetiQ North America’s new scanners use Millimeter Wave (MMW) sensors that can detect the radio waves naturally emitted by the human body up to 65 feet away. Radio waves emitted by metal and plastic objects appear “cold” in contrast to the “warm” radio waves of a human torso, tipping off operators to the possible presence of a bomb.

Operators can scan crowds from a remote location, controlling the machine with a joystick while watching a threat bar on a computer monitor.

If the MMW sensor detects a cold object under clothing, the threat bar spikes. If the threat bar jolts into the red, operators can notify security.

“This is a tool that security personnel could use to protect crowds from a direct and imminent threat,” said Gary Jebsen, business director at QinetiQ.

Operators do not have to be on site to manage the machine, and training only takes a few hours, he said.

“It is a rather simple machine to use, considering what’s at stake,” said Wally E. Miller, QinetiQ managing director.

Edward H. Kaplan, a professor of public health and engineering at Yale University, reviewed standoff suicide bomb detection technology in 2005 and reported his conclusions in the official journal of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.

While the technology could prove useful in portals such as airport checkpoints and building entrances, Mr. Kaplan said he doubts such sensors can prevent the kind of random suicide attacks that frequently occur in the Middle East.

It would take too much time for an operator to detect a suspicious person and then take the necessary steps to control the threat, Mr. Kaplan told The Washington Times in e-mail. The number of machines deployed would “have to be extremely high to even stand a chance of having a random terrorist attacker fall within the standoff detection range,” he said.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) purchased 12 SPO-7R Standoff Suicide Bomb Detectors from QinetiQ in October for $2.4 million. The SPO-7R model, which weighs 51 pounds and has a range of 50 feet, can be used at mobile checkpoints and building entrances.

TSA has not decided where it would deploy the machines, but the agency might use them at several airports, according to spokeswoman Lauren Wolf.

TSA has conducted “test trials” of the much larger, 330-pound SPO-20 at the Staten Island ferry terminal and Pier 90 in New York City. The machines were also tested at Washington’s Union Station during last year’s Independence Day celebration. The tripod-mounted SPO-20 has a range of about 65 feet.

Ms. Wolf said TSA was not sure whether it will purchase more of the machines, but the agency was pleased with the results.

“It is certainly promising technology, but we are still in an evaluation period,” she said.

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