Without a Trace: No Revival for Airport Puffer Machines Used to Detect Explosives

By Magnuson, Stew | National Defense, August 2010 | Go to article overview

Without a Trace: No Revival for Airport Puffer Machines Used to Detect Explosives


Magnuson, Stew, National Defense


ATLANTIC CITY, NJ. -- The Transportation Security Administration has no plans to continue research into puffer machines that were designed to detect trace amounts of explosives on passengers.

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Domenic Bianchini, general manager of TSA's passenger screening program, said there are no active programs in the pipeline that would improve the technology that was pulled out of airports last year because of frequent malfunctions. He spoke at Transportation Security Laboratory, which tests and evaluates new explosive detection technologies.

It's the lab's philosophy to never say never, he added. "We're always open to new ideas, new concepts and improvements to baseline technology. We're never close minded," he said.

The puffer machines were rushed into airports in the wake of two airplane bombings in Russia attributed to Chechnyan terrorists called the "Black Widows." These young women were suspected of hiding explosives underneath their clothing.

The puffer machines became a poster child of technology that works well in a laboratory, but not in a real-world setting. Dust, humidity and dirt clogged the sensors. Fumes from jet fuel created false alarms. TSA purchased more than 200 machines from vendors Smiths Detection and General Electric in 2004, but deployed fewer than half of them. …

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