Current technology is useful for spotting weapons and suspicious packages hidden under clothing. With improved technology, airport scanners will produce much higher resolution images to see much smaller dangers — like postage-stamp-sized triggering mechanisms. They may even be able to tell if the powder in an unopened envelope is cocaine, flour or explosives. The improved scanner will also allow airport screeners to see much clearer images of passengers’ bodies, which could spur new privacy concerns.
“With the current machines, you can distinguish males from females, but it isn’t always easy,” said Rice University researcher Daniel Mittleman, a specialist in terahertz (T-ray) imaging. “With true T-ray cameras, there will be much finer resolution. There will be very little left to the imagination.”
Mittleman, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, is developing camera technology that will use terahertz waves for super-high resolution. Today’s airport scanners use beams with a wavelength of about three millimeters, and they cannot resolve details smaller than the wavelength of light they scan with. T-rays are at least 10 times smaller. Not only will they allow more resolution, but they’ll also be able to detect the chemical signature of some drugs and explosives.
Mittleman said there’s no way to know how soon the new technology will be ready to move from the lab into widespread use, but he said the fundamental physics has been established.
“It’s an engineering problem at this stage,” he said. “The big pieces are there, but they need to be brought together.”
A USA Today/Gallup poll conducted Jan. 5-6 found that 78 percent of Americans approve of the use of current full-body scanners. A poll by CNN/Opinion Research Jan. 8-10 came up with a similar result of 79 percent support.
CONTACT: David Ruth