Explosive discussion with the Transportation Security Lab’s Jason Stairs

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is constantly generating new screening requirements, equipment that can sense or detect something and sound an alarm if need be. It falls to the Homeland Security Department’s Transportation Security Laboratory (TSL), operated by the Science and Technology Directorate, to work with TSA and potential vendors to evaluate-and-test a particular technology. In the third of four interviews in this week’s series with TSL leadership, the  Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with the Developmental Test and Evaluation Alarm Resolution Branch Manager, Jason Stairs.

Interview transcript:

Jason Stairs
Were really a middle person, between, the OEMs, who are business trying to sell equipment to the government and the government trying to find equipment that matches their requirements. So we really work that middle area and help the systems get ready.

Tom Temin
Give us an example of a type of technology or system and what do you do with it?

Jason Stairs
A classic one, would be an Explosive Trace Detection system or an ETD. And those are the systems in the airport, that after you go through the primary X-ray and primary personnel screening, that they might swab a little cloth on your baggage and put it into a machine. And what that system is looking for, is trace amounts of explosives. And we define trace as you can’t see it. So it’s little particles of explosives that the machine can detect and pick up. And those are systems we’ve worked with for years, working with the vendors trying to help get them ready and then informing the government of the capabilities.

Tom Temin
So you have the primary requirement from TSA and you work with industry to get them there?

Jason Stairs
Yes. And so we understand the government’s requirements. And then we also, understand the technology. Sort of our interpreters of the requirement, to tell the technology vendors, this is what you need to do and you need to get better here. And then, the people who are buying the equipment, aren’t always technical. So we tell them, yes, it met your requirements.

Tom Temin
Right. So TSA then, doesn’t, actually, contract for the gear, in the sense of, here’s what we need and then you can sell it to us.

Jason Stairs
TSA, traditionally, contracts with a company to buy the equipment. So that’s after it’s already passed through testing. And in science and technology, in the S&T Directorate, where we said, there is a funding for some of these companies to develop towards those requirements. And there’s funding for our testing, to really, it’s a spiral development. So, sometimes, it can take years, where a company comes in with a system, we test it, say, this is where you did well, but you need to work over here and do a little bit better. And they’ll go away, they’ll do some research and development, then they come back, oh, you got it, you did better or you’re not quite there yet. So it kind of does go around in the spiral development, evolution of the technology towards those requirements.

Tom Temin
And in trace explosive, seems to be a focus of a lot of the work at the laboratory. What is left to be understood about it?

Jason Stairs
Well, the problem is, it’s just so difficult to test. Ideally, we want to have our test be reproducible and quantifiable. So if TSA says, you need to detect this very specific amount of explosives, we need to be able to know that we’re delivering that amount of explosives, to the technology and you can’t see it. So that’s hard. And then make sure you’re doing it the same every time. So it’s just really a laborious process, takes a lot of analytical equipment, I’m sure you’ve seen as you’ve toured the lab. And we’re, actually, one of the few places in the world that has all of that equipment just focused on this effort.

Tom Temin
Right. And there’s also new and exotic explosives coming into being all the time. So you, almost, may have to start over every time.

Jason Stairs
Yeah, the job security keeps us having to, sometimes, do things over again, in the sense, that we’ve tested some system, we’ve certified it, once that happens and it’s out in the field, we keep one of those copies here. But then there’s a new intelligence that comes in and then there’s a new threat that people are chatting about, that shouldn’t be chatting about it. And so then, they ask us, could the systems detect this new thing? And then we have to go through and do the testing cycle again.

Tom Temin
And do the surfaces upon, which it has to be detected or the manner in which it has to be detected, there’s a lot of variables there, also?

Jason Stairs
Oh, sure, yes. And understanding those. So the explosive trace detection systems, are chemical detectors, basically. And we’re looking for, very specific, chemicals, the explosive chemicals. But there’s a lot of other chemicals in the universe, that could go through a checkpoint, from hand lotions to whatever might be on a surface. And those can all change the chemistry in an ETD, which might change the results. So that’s also, why we’re constantly looking into those things, primarily to make sure our test is representative of what they would find in a security environment.

Tom Temin
Right. And let’s take the carry on example. Your carry on baggage goes through a machine, is x-rayed from different angles and a 3D image is developed of what’s in there, pictures of things that is not going to see the trace explosive. And there’s also not a detector inside that machine that sniffing for explosive traces.

Jason Stairs
No, though that we’ve tried that.

Tom Temin
Right. So that means that, it’s the discretion of the TSO, to your knowledge, that they would even try to test for a trace explosive in the first place.

Jason Stairs
Well trace gets triggered as an alarm resolution technology, that if they have suspicions, for one reason or another, but might be that they see something in the X-ray image that they’re not sure about or suspicious about. Then they could send it to trace. And then they’ll look for those invisible trace particles. So a lot of studies we did years ago and some still now ongoing, is making bombs doing it and clean and dirty methods and then measuring that trace amount of explosives left behind. And it’s very difficult. We have some of the world’s experts here. And there’s some people here that can do it, but we have all the right tools and all the right equipment. It can be very difficult to do such a clean bill that you haven’t left some trace behind.

Tom Temin
Right. So I guess, if you’re a really good bomb maker or something, you would do your work in a hazmat suit and then, kind of, get out of it.

Jason Stairs
A lot of protocols go into it, to be that careful. And when you get into the trace world, or at least I can say, personally, when I got into it, I found out what trace meant by. I was working with something in a in a hood in the laboratory and a little bit of the powder, just poofed. And I went oh, I hope that doesn’t cause a problem. And then I came in Monday, that was Friday. And they said, what happened in the fume hood, it’s blowing out all the trace equipment. And I said, I’m sorry, that was me. And then they spent three days trying to clean it. And it just kept coming up hot, just from that one little poof of material, that went in the hood. They’re very sensitive. It’s incredible how sensitive they are. But they are just looking for those trace amounts, not the actual bulk bomb. And that’s where there are some other alarm resolution technologies being looked at, that would look at that bulk material to identify. This would be, if you’ve definitely found something that you’re suspicious about, can you now use a bulk resolution tool to identify it?

Tom Temin
Right, but in the trace world, then the challenge is twofold. Sounds like one, there’s new types of explosive materials being whipped up by these people all the time, whoever they are the terrorists. At the same time, you need to detect ever smaller levels of things you do know how to trace.

Jason Stairs
Well, luckily, they don’t keep making them lower. They are at a set level that we’re looking for. But they do keep adding on to the list, which is challenging for the technology. But we’ve continued to do it to this day, I believe, we’re working now on updating systems that are currently deployed, to do just that.

Tom Temin
And what are some of the challenges in the bulk area, once you past trace?

Jason Stairs
Well, so for bulk area, the ETD, as I mentioned, as a chemical detector and on the bulk resolution technology side. It’s more of physical detectors looking for optical spectroscopy. So both will detect and identify individual molecules, but one does it with a laser. And the other does it with a time of flight IMS tube. So some of the challenges on the bulk side, are security organizations, sometimes, I heard you refer to it earlier, they want magic or magic wands, like we want to be able to see through everything and know what’s in it. Well, it’s hard to see through everything, there’s just some things that are going to be more challenging. And you might have a different technology to look at that. So that’s where a lot of the different layers of security, we had an old director, they referred to it as swiss cheese, that there might be holes in one technology. But then there’s another set of swiss cheese that will catch those holes. And once you add it all up, you can’t get through all the holes. But that’s a primary challenge right there, being able to see into the insides of something.

Tom Temin
And you’re making a lot of progress, in detecting what is in jars and bottles and containers. Pursuant to, I guess, TSA’s need to be able to let people bring a bottle of something that’s 16 ounces, or whatever.

Jason Stairs
TSA currently has deployed bottle liquid scanners, which are mostly made for medical essentials. But that technology now that it’s been out in the field for a few years, has matured. Industry has learned much more of what those requirements are, of wanting to see into things. And they are starting to, really, advance the capability of their systems to be able to see in some of these containers. So if it’s a shampoo bottle, for example, they’d be able to look through them and see if that’s a an explosive in there or if it’s just shampoo.

Tom Temin
Right. And there’s a great deal of variation among, even a given class of liquid. I understand like gin and vodka. Both clear, distilled beverages, have different spectroscopic qualities or different detectable qualities. So you have to really be fine grained about it.

Jason Stairs
Yeah, they can have different signatures and it depends on right, how fine grained do you want to get. For gin and vodka, if we were curious to find such things, we would just set it to detect ethanol, which they both have ethanol in it. So you would find that it’s an alcohol. If you want it to really get into what kind of alcohol, that would require a whole other level of training and testing.

Tom Temin
But right now, you don’t have that requirement.

Jason Stairs
No, it’s easier to find, there’s fewer threats that we’re looking for versus all of the other things that aren’t threats. So it’s more of a, is it a bad thing or not? If it’s not bad, then it’s good.

Tom Temin
Sounds like the the trend here, is towards being able to detect more and more things, as a way of letting people take more and more things back on airplanes someday.

Jason Stairs
Well, that’s a good point. Yeah, there is conversation going on of well, can we just identify the good things. And then if we can say it’s a good thing, then we’ll let it through. But just like I mentioned, there’s so many more benign items that are out there, that to be able to try to pick all of them and all of their variations and train an instrument to identify each of them, it’s a large task.

Tom Temin
Well, there’s infinity out.

Jason Stairs
Right, that’s the problem. When, sometimes, they say what chemicals will it alarm on? For example. And I’m like, you mean in the entire universe or in this room? I mean, you have to sort of bound that a little bit.

 

 

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