ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — Patrick O’Conner gets paid to make bombs.
He constructs the most dastardly and sneaky improvised explosive devices he can conjure, and has at his disposal a vast sampling of military grade and homemade explosives, along with the latest intelligence on the tricks terrorists are using to make IEDs.
He takes these explosives and hides them as best he can in stuffed animals, shoes, laptops or anything else that may make it past a baggage screener.
Fortunately, O’Conner works for the Transportation Security Laboratory, a Department of Homeland Security facility administered by the science and technology directorate. It’s his job to trip up those who are testing the latest luggage screening equipment destined for airports.
Down the hall, William Petracci, the lab’s test director, places the bombs O’Conner creates on the belt of a new check-in baggage screening machine.
“We run thousand and thousands of bombs through these machines before we are comfortable with [the technology’s] performance,” he said as he examined the image of a laptop containing a thin strip of explosives. With technology similar to what is used in a CAT scan, the machine’s imager spins at hundreds of rotations per minute to come up with a 3-D image of the laptop. The explosives are highlighted in red. The operator viewing the image can turn it around to have a better look.
“There is a little bit of a rivalry, but we love each other,” Petracci said of O’Conner.
The lab was established in the wake of the Lockerbie bombing over Scotland in 1988, explained its director Susan Hallowell during a tour of the facility.
“It was a horrific event and in my mind the first step in modern terrorism because we realized it was no longer about just trying to get knives and guns through checkpoints for hijacking,” she told reporters. “We now had the ugly specter of keeping bombs off airplanes.”
The lab tests the fully developed machines sent to it by manufacturers to ensure they meet TSA standards. It also carries out basic and applied research into promising new technologies. It has a human factors division that tests how passengers and TSA screeners interact with new technologies. There is also a vulnerability analysis section where bombs are detonated on aircraft to see how well they can withstand explosions.
To further ensure that tests are realistic, there is a massive collection of lost and unclaimed luggage and their contents that airlines couldn’t reunite with their owners. A warehouse wall full of everything from golf bags to Hello Kitty roll-on suitcases is at the testers’ disposal.
O’Conner said terrorists trying to take down a plane are only limited by their imagination and the explosive materials they have on hand.
Those who are trying to defeat the would-be bombers have two advantages. The first is “there are only a certain number of materials that go bang, and work,” O’Conner said. “We want to make sure that it’s not just what they’re using now, but what they might use” as far as explosive materials, he added.
The second advantage is that it is impossible to make a “clean bomb,” Hallowell explained. The bomb maker is going to leave some minuscule traces of explosives on the surface of the skin, clothes, or the object in which the chemicals are contained.
“You can exploit that residue on the surface or you can exploit the vapor coming off the surface to do some chemistry, and verify the existence of explosives, usually very specifically,” she added.
For example, liquid explosives will always release a vapor, no matter how well a container is sealed.
Basic research is examining ways to trap these vapors and characterize them. The lab is also experimenting with terahertz waves, a part of the spectrum that goes beyond current millimeter wave technology that peers under clothing to look for odd shapes such as guns or concealed
Terahertz waves, if the correct frequencies are found, have the potential to not only find odd shapes, but to identify the material comprising the anomaly. It could alert TSA officers to the presence and type of explosives from a standoff distance, which is a longstanding technological hurdle counterterrorism officials have been attempting to overcome.
Terahertz sensors are still at the basic research level, and it could be many years before the technology makes it to airports, Hallowell said.