What Can Airport Baggage Scanners Detect?

Guides · 6 min read · May 10, 2022
Drug Airport Baggage Scanner Images

The big question not only for customers but also for airport employees – what can airport baggage scanners detect? And for what do we need an extra layer of security?

The top priority of airport security has always been to guarantee everyone is always safe. Therefore, airport scanners have been used for a number of years with the purpose of detecting anything that may put lives in danger, like any kind of weapon that could be used to hijack an airplane, for example.

Of course, there are many objects that pass through an airport, so airport scanners need to be powerful enough to help the security team identify those that are not legal. However, it is well known that the easiest objects to detect are those made of metal, which is why it all started with simple metal detectors. Nevertheless, a modern airport scanner can detect both metallic and non-metallic objects.

Now, the question is can airport scanners detect drugs? In general, illegal drugs cannot be detected with a metal detector. So, how do they work? And how could an airport scanner detect drugs?

If you want to know the answers to these questions, keep reading to discover them.

Airport scanners

The first thing you should know is that there are different types of scanners used by airport security. When you are at the airport, you can easily identify at least two of them at the security checkpoint, one for your body and one for your carry-on bags.

The idea of using scanners is to be able to detect those things that a metal detector cannot detect. Since they are considered a vital line of defense against terrorism, the technology behind them is quite advanced. So, how do they work?

A full-body millimeter-wave scanner at an airport.
Image source: Raimond Spekking

How do airport scanners work?

The main operating principle of these scanners is using high-energy electromagnetic radiation called X-ray radiation. To put it simply, the X-rays, which are high-energy beams of light, are blocked or dimmed by every material or substance to a certain degree, and comparisons are made between the level to which two or more objects block them.

However, to better understand how they work, it is better to see each type of scanner in detail. In general, there are two types, full-body scanners, and airport baggage scanners.

  • Full-body scanners

As the name suggests, full-body scanners are those used to scan the whole body of the passenger at the airport security screening. There are two full-body scanners, the millimeter-wave scanners, and the backscatter X-ray scanners. Let’s take a closer look at them.

  • Millimeter-wave scanners

A millimeter-wave scanner can be described as the one using the so-called millimeter waves to scan the body. These are electromagnetic waves in the frequency range of 30-300 GHz, just above the microwave range. These waves bounce off the object being scanned and produce an animated image that is colored based on potential threat levels to detect any points of interest that could be subject to further scrutiny.

The security officers in charge of interpreting the information provided by the images the millimeter-wave scanners produce will then determine if there is any reason to extend the security process with a detailed search.

  • Backscatter X-ray scanners

Backscatter scanners are quite effective to scan and detect any illegal materials. However, their flaw is that it takes them longer to complete the scan and generate the image, the main reason why they have been replaced by the millimeter-wave ones in some airport security processes. Another reason includes the fact that they were considered invasive, so with privacy being a major concern these days, they have been replaced although they are still found in some major US, UK, and European airports.

These scanners operate by sending ionizing radiation that bounces off the body but reveals any items that are not part of it. This allows the security agents to see any illegal object that may pose a threat. It is important to highlight that ionizing radiation is harmless for the human body in very small doses.

  • Airport baggage scanners

Also known as baggage scanners or baggage scanner machines, these are the airport scanners normally used to scan both checked baggage and carry-on luggage.

The working principle is similar to that of a backscatter X-ray scanner, but these use X-rays to look into the bag and see the contents of the luggage. These scanners emphasize the edges of an item, allowing the security officer to see through the things that are inside the bag and identify any illegal object more easily.

Now that we have a better idea about how all the scanners in the airport work, it is time to answer the main question.

An x-rayed traveller's bag on an airport scanner screen.
Image source: IDuke

Can airport scanners detect drugs?

Clearly, we cannot say that airport scanners detect drugs by themselves. It is not the actual scanner identifying what a person is carrying on the body, in the carry-on, or in the checked luggage.

However, this advanced imaging technology provides an X-ray image that Transportation Security Administration or TSA officers with a trained eye can use to easily decide whether the passenger poses a threat. This way the security agent can get the passenger into a more comprehensive security process before clearing them for boarding.

In other words, airport scanners detect drugs thanks to the skills of airport security officers.

Airport security now

Apart from the scanners mentioned above, there are different methods to detect drugs, illegal objects, and even explosives.

For example, there are metal detectors that are still used to locate possible weapons. Also, when passengers do not pass the first screening and must go through a secondary one, they may go through the classical pat-downs or another full-body screening with a millimeter-wave or x-ray scanner.

However, the most common type of scanner found in airports these days is the one called ATI. New ATI scanners or attenuation imaging scanners are preferred because they are designed to guarantee privacy. Passengers can rest assured that the common misbelief that scanners can see inside body cavities and diagnose disease is just that, a misbelief. The truth is that ATI scanners show only a generic outline without the possibility to identify gender or body type.

When it comes to detecting explosives, the preferred choice comes in the form of a portal called a trace portal machine. This is also useful to detect drugs since they can detect non-metallic objects.

What lies ahead for airport security

It is true that airport security has come a long way to develop and implement the methods and technologies used nowadays. However, potential threats will always be present and they also evolve with time.

To make sure air travel is safe, new ways of security screening are required. A group that is gaining traction in this field is the terahertz scanners. These are described as standoff screening systems that make it possible to produce real-time imaging of moving passengers by using waves in the terahertz range.

While this type of scanner has already been tested and used, it is considered that in the future we will see them integrated not only at checkpoints but into surrounding facilities and areas like the terminal entrance, check-in counters, and even some hallways.

The main idea behind this implementation is that it will add a vital layer of security without being intrusive or interrupting the flow of passengers in transit.

Also, it is expected that both airports and airlines will be working together to find solutions that help reduce the time it takes for passengers to go through security screening and the required personnel. The idea is to improve efficiency and reduce costs to make the whole process more profitable.

For example, there is a portable scanner under development by University College London that will be capable of identifying what any item is made of by a simple scan. This has the potential of making the security screening process quicker by detecting hidden items in carry-on or hand luggage without the need for direct contact or x-rays, the latter usually taking more time.

Airport security checkpoint at Berlin Airport.
Image source: Ralf Roletschek

Of course, the use of technologies like artificial intelligence also promises great improvements. An advanced body scanner that applies this technology is being developed by a company called Sequestim, which calls the scanner a “secure walk-through passenger screening”. The idea is that AI makes the scanner more sensitive and passengers will be able to walk through it without having to remove anything from their pockets or take off any clothing item, steps that usually make the process longer.

Finally, we can say that aviation security has become the test bud of new technologies. From Biometric Systems to Computerized Tomography (CT) Walkways and other innovative technologies, it appears that the aviation industry is moving into what is already called “Smart Security”. The intention is to integrate different systems and technologies towards strengthened security, increased passenger efficiency, and an improved passenger experience. Time will tell if the objectives are really achieved and the efforts are not in vain.

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Carlos Collantes
Carlos Collantes
A mechanical engineer and aviation enthusiast dedicated to share some knowledge by creating top-notch content, especially in engineering and aviation topics.

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