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Software can tell shampoo from explosives

You may think your new shampoo is 'da bomb', but to an airport security guard looking at it under an X-ray machine, it may look like an actual bomb.

However, a company in Virginia has technology that can help airport security screeners tell if a container of liquid is an explosive as it passes through airport X-ray machines.

Guardian Technologies International is in talks with the TSA (US Transportation Security Administration) to use its PinPoint image analysis software in conjunction with airport X-ray machines to tell the difference between explosives and organic items such as shampoo, clothes and food in carry-on baggage, according to a company executive.

The technology could be good news for airport passengers who are unhappy that new TSA regulations mandate they are no longer allowed to bring liquid items, including shampoo, water and perfume, on to airplanes. The move came yesterday after UK officials arrested individuals they believed to be part of a terrorist plot to bring liquid explosives onto a plane to assemble a bomb.

Guardian vice president Steven Lancaster said PinPoint, which runs on a PC, can be hooked up to X-ray machines to provide in-depth image analysis of items as they go through. The technology uses algorithms to analyse images beyond the current capability of the X-ray screening systems, he said.

Today, all a security screener can tell through an X-ray machine is the density of the items going through, Lancaster said. "Based upon that density, the hardware manufacturers then colourise that image and place various levels of density into a colour spectrum."

Lancaster said plastic items are in the green colour spectrum, while the most dense items, such as those made of metal, will be more in the black and blue spectrums. Explosive items are in the orange spectrum, alongside organic items such as clothing, shoes and food, he said.

Guardian's PinPoint software takes X-ray images and uses "classic imaging technologies", such as spatial, domain and spectral analysis, to filter the images further and detect the difference between explosives and other organic items, Lancaster said. It can detect if an explosive is being hidden inside or behind an item that falls into one of the other colour spectrums, he said.

"When we bombard the image with our algorithms, we begin to differentiate or get a different signal from [an explosive] item," he said. "It's similar to DNA mapping of the genome."

PinPoint is currently being piloted in airports in Moscow and Caracas, Venezuela. Testing of PinPoint should begin in TSA laboratories in the US within the next few weeks, Lancaster said.

He said he does not know how soon after it will start to be tested in US airports, but it could happen in the next few months. "Hopefully, an event like today would provide a great sense of urgency to do this sooner rather than later," Lancaster said.

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