Airport baggage scanners didn’t detect explosives: panel

Ajmer Singh Posted: Nov 12, 2012 at 0206 hrs
New Delhi New-generation baggage scanning machines installed at major Indian airports have become a bone of contention between aviation authorities and security agencies with the latter claiming that the scanners failed a test to detect explosives as specified. Aviation authorities and the manufacturers of the machines have, however, rejected those claims and said officials who tested the machines may not have known how to use them correctly.

The scanners — installed at Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Chennai, Ahmedabad and Kochi airports — were procured in 2010 at a cost of Rs 2 crore per unit and continue to remain in service. They “failed” the tests conducted in July-August 2011, after which security agencies introduced manual verification of images of every bag produced by the scanner about six months ago as an interim measure until the row over the machines’ capabilities is resolved.

The scanners are called in-line baggage inspection systems as they scan bags that go into the cargo hold of the aircraft after passengers check in and hand over their luggage to the airline. They use x-ray imaging and “automatic intelligence” to verify the contents of bags and determine whether they include explosives. While the scanners at Mumbai airport were supplied by Rapiscan Systems, the machines at the other six airports were supplied by Smiths Detection, both leading international firms.

During the tests, security sources said that a technological specification committee of officials from the IB, RAW, SPG, NSG, BCAS and the civil aviation ministry passed bags containing 500 gm of six kinds of explosives, including PETN and ammonium nitrate, as well as IEDs through these systems. The scanners did not flag any of these bags as suspicious, the sources said.

Following this, the security agencies asked the manufacturers to fix the scanners or share their software details to help recalibrate them and make them compatible with BCAS specifications. But the manufacturers refused to share such details and blamed the agencies for their poor testing skills, the sources said.

BCAS subsequently issued an aviation security order saying all images thrown up by the scanner should be examined by screeners sitting next to them.

“The in-line baggage system installed at various airports falls under the EDS (explosive detection systems) category for checked-in baggage and is supposed to detect all kind of explosives,” said J K Srivastava, president of Smiths Detection India. “Though it works on a 70:30 principle, if there is an explosive in the 70 per cent, it will throw up the image of each and every bag that has dangerous substances. We would like to emphasise that the systems supplied and installed by our company at Indian airports are of state-of-the-art technology and are fully compliant with current standards.”

The 70:30 principle refers to the “automatic intelligence” used by Smiths Detection machines to clear 70 per cent of the baggage and reject the rest, according to the Airports Authority of India (AAI). “The machines reject 30 per cent of the baggage, the images of which are then sent to the screener. These systems have automatic intelligence capability and have been tested against a wide range of substances considered dangerous for aircraft. The details and specifications are never disclosed, or else terrorists would understand the software,” said AAI chairman V P Agrawal.

V H Ron, former MD of ECIL Rapiscan, during whose tenure eight systems were supplied to Mumbai airport, said the system approximates the detection and only suspicious images are thrown up for further examination. “The technology or physics is that x-ray based system can’t detect explosives, it is only approximate detection of dangerous substances,” Ron said.

AAI believes the officers who tested the machines could have been unskilled. “The problem could be due to the sheer ignorance of officers who lacked the skills to test for explosives,” Agrawal said, adding that similar systems are being installed at Kolkata and Goa airports too. “There was also a misunderstanding on the part of home ministry and IB officials. Their concerns are being addressed by us. We have asked for experts from the US and Europe to take a fresh look at the machines and train officials.”