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Wed, Jan 27, 2010

MRI Refinements May One Day End 3-1-1

TSA Working With Los Alamos National Labs On More Accurate Baggage Scanners

TSA says it is working with Los Alamos National Laboratory on fine-tuning Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) technology to develop the MagVis, or Magnetic Vision Innovative Prototype (pictured, below) which could discern between shave gel and C-4. If successful, TSA says the days of limiting liquids carried on board an aircraft to three ounces in a one quart clear plastic bag ... known as 3-1-1 ... could end.

By detecting ultralow magnetic fields, the MagViz can peer through whatever container you’re carrying, divine what’s in it, and let you pass with your bottled water or—during flu season—your hand sanitizer. Last year, to test the new model’s selectivity, DHS program evaluators planted multiple surprise liquids at Albuquerque International Airport. MagViz correctly flagged all liquid-bomb ingredients.

At the same time, DHS says MagViz gave the green light to all but one friendly fluid. And it withstood real-life tests such as an outsize bag; a refrigerator magnet from the airport gift shop; a stuck-open door; and even a false loading, when an edgy passenger snatched back her half-inserted purse. On the operator’s display, threats were clearly indicated.

The technology does present some challenges. In the Albuquerque test, the prototype had to be shielded from electromagnetic interference radiating from fluorescent ballasts, Wi-Fi laptops, and even smartphones. That shielding came in the form of a large exoframe that would be too bulky for a real operational setting. To engineer a shielded MagViz in a compact enclosure, DHS says it will look to the private sector.

In most airports, MagViz would be placed immediately behind the X-ray machine, giving each carry-on a second scan. In smaller airports, where the screening area may be too short for a tandem arrangement, MagViz would sit off to the side. “You’d have to wait in a separate line,” concedes MagViz program manager Stephen Surko of S&T’s Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency(HSARPA), “but at least you could bring along that large bottle of [water].”

Surko says while MagViz would be a tremendous improvement,it's not perfect. Unlike a fingerprint, nuclear magnetic resonance signatures can vary. If, for example, a liquid is slightly warmer or cooler than expected, or its pH a bit more acidic or basic, the reading can change. “MagViz can see all these differences easily,” says Surko. “We need to learn how well we can predict them and account for them.”

FMI: www.dhs.gov

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