These Scanners Could Let You Travel With Liquids and Electronic Devices

Elaine Thompson/AP

A San Diego-based company is in talks with TSA to test out a scanner that could search tablets and cellphones for explosives.

The Homeland Security Department is gradually tightening restrictions on what passengers can take on airplanes—an effort to thwart terrorists—but one California startup wants travelers to keep their liquids and their electronic devices when they fly.

DHS Secretary John Kelly’s electronics ban prohibits travelers on inbound flights from 10 airports in the Middle East and North Africa from bringing large electronic devices onboard—anything bigger than a cellphone. More recently, Kelly has advocated for “enhanced screening” of devices for belonging to passengers on all commercial inbound flights, in addition to “more thorough passenger vetting” and bomb-sniffing dogs at security checkpoints.

“Terrorists want to bring down aircraft to instill fear, disrupt our economies, and undermine our way of life. And it works—which is why they still see aviation as the crown jewel target in their world,” Kelly said at the New American Security Conference last month. “The threat has not diminished. In fact, I am concerned that we are seeing renewed interest on the part of terrorist groups to go after the aviation sector—from bombing aircraft to attacking airports on the ground, as we saw in Brussels and Istanbul.”

For One Resonance Sensors, a 10-person tech company based in San Diego, renewed security concerns are a market opportunity. Its founder, Pablo Prado, has recently been meeting with DHS and Transportation Security Administration officials, urging them to install its liquid and electronic device scanners, which he says can identify explosives within seconds.

ORS’ scanners use radio frequency technology to search for the chemical particles found in explosives. The liquid scanner accepts bottles holding up to 2 liters of liquid; the electronics scanner currently vets tablets and smaller devices, but the company is modifying it to screen laptops as well.

Today’s air travelers are used to flying without liquids, Prado said, so convincing airport security groups across the world passengers should be able to travel with them—as long as they’re screened—is a harder sell. Initially, the company focused on selling bottle scanners, but because most airports already prohibit travelers from carrying large amounts of liquids, the team pivoted into electronics scanners.

Backlash surrounding the electronics ban demonstrated passengers aren’t ready to fork over their laptops for international flights, Prado said, so scanners that can effectively screen those devices may find support among passengers and TSA.

The electronics ban has raised awareness about the “need for added security measures,” Prado said, and ORS’ mission is to communicate to the government that “we have a device that can address this threat.”

The company has already scored funding from DHS to validate its electronics scanners, and its liquid scanner may soon be tested in a TSA facility, Prado told Nextgov. Prado envisions TSA agents might have a few of these units at security checkpoints—maybe one per lane, depending on traffic—to selectively scan passengers’ items. Each scan takes about 10 seconds, and machines can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Many of ORS’ employees had previously studied landmine detection and decided to apply principles from the radio frequency technology they used to scan the earth to vet liquids and electronic devices, Prado explained.

Their products are on their way into airport testbeds. ORS has four federal contracts: $3 million from DHS’ Science and Technology Directorate to evaluate the device scanner, $1 million from TSA to modify the bottle scanner already certified for use at airports in Europe, and smaller research contracts from the Agriculture Department and the U.S. Army to scan soil for moisture levels.

The electronics scanner is already set up at TSA’s Systems Integration Facility in Arlington, where the agency is planning an upcoming “concept of operation” test at a simulated checkpoint; TSA’s Innovation Task Force approved ORS’ proposal to test its bottle scanner for baby food and liquid medicine.

Instead of prohibiting travelers from traveling with certain items, security agencies across the globe could simply invest in better scanning technology, Prado argued—but “that requires that regulators recognize we have the proper performance to do that.”