Space & Innovation

Brussels Bombs: 'Tunnel of Truth' Scans for Explosives

A long walkway flanked by several scanning devices could passively detect for explosives without creating a passenger bottleneck.

New security technology could make it more difficult for terrorists to pull off attacks like the ones that happened this morning in Brussels.

A system under development, called a "Tunnel of Truth," goes beyond the current scanners that image passengers or luggage before they board an airplane and screens people as they enter an airport and subway station.

DNA Survives Bomb Blast

"What happened in Brussels is a really tough problem," said Cameron Ritchie, vice president for technology and product development at Morpho Detection, a international biometric and security firm.

"We operate at checkpoints or with luggage before it goes on a plane. In both cases, you have an orderly queue that makes the job a whole lot easier. The issue is that today these guys didn't present themselves to be inspected."

But the Department of Homeland Security is funding research into a "Tunnel of Truth," a long walkway flanked by several scanning devices that can passively detect explosives, weapons or other contraband without creating a passenger bottleneck.

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Video cameras would also record passengers' facial expressions for signs of nervousness, erratic behavior or other "tells" that indicate they might be hiding something or lying about their identity.

Morpho is already working on the first step in this tunnel, a sensor that can remotely "swab" the air around a passenger's body for chemical traces.

"That's the holy grail for our field," Ritchie said.

Morpho and other firms have designed and built an increasingly sophisticated array of devices to stop trouble: CAT scanners that check for high-density materials that could indicate an explosive device, X-ray diffraction machines that scan each bag for chemicals that resemble explosives, detectors that analyze swabs of travelers skin to check for minute traces of explosives.

Shortly before 8 a.m. local time a bomb exploded in the departure terminal at Brussels Airport. | Christophe Licoppe/Photo News S.A./Corbis

But every new attack often requires a simultaneous technological upgrade, according to Ritchie.

"Just when you have it figured out, then a new explosive comes along with density of another object and you have a false alarm problem," he said.

DNA Survives Bomb Blast

It's not just keeping up with the latest bomb-making technology that has been difficult. The human factor is also a problem.

"What you are seeing is terrorists are aware they can't get on the plane," said Steve Wood, principal lecturer at Leeds Becket University in the United Kingdom who studies airport security. "They are acknowledging that 9/11 is wishful thinking, so they are going to the second-best or third-best situation for them."

A Village Made Out Of Bombs: Photos

That means blowing up places with little or no security, such as subways stations or the public areas at airports populated by travelers and non-travelers alike.

Doubling up on safety might require that passengers be scanned without their knowing it. Already, Rapiscan Systems has developed a remotely operated device called the "CounterBomber" that uses very low power radar and video technology to detect someone wearing a suicide bomber vest. (See video below.)

click to play video

This device could be used at airports or train stations.

It uses radar to distinguish between pedestrians wearing just clothing and pedestrians wearing clothes and hiding something like a suicide vest under their clothing according to J.J. Bare, vice president of CounterBomber technologies at Rapiscan.

"You want to look at approaches where you have time and distance, it doesn't make sense to find a suicide bomber inside of a crowd, you've already lost," said Bare. The system has been deployed by the Pentagon since 2008.

One senior counter-terrorism researcher at a federally funded lab said there's no magic bullet for stopping terrorist bombs. "The slope is upward and we are making it harder for the bad guys," he said. "But you can't protect everything all the time."

At 9:11 a.m. local time, a bomb ripped through a subway car at Maelbeek station.

War leaves behind scarred earth and communities left to pick up the pieces, trying to rebuild the life they once knew. And in some cases, using the remnants of war is part of the process.

Photographer Mark Watson

took the photo above during a bike tour from Asia to Indonesia that lasted nine months. "I became curious about the secret war legacy that was here," Watson said. You can see more of his story in a

new episode

of

This Happened Here

, from Discovery's

Seeker network

.

"This photo is of local canoes that had been fabricated from war scrap," Watson said. "I spotted them as we cycled over a bridge above and decided to go down and investigate. I recognized them to have been the scattered long-range fuel tanks from American bombers."

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"We started to see war scrap everywhere: shrapnel, bomb casings, cylinders from cluster bombs, and the fuel canisters."

'Flying Coffin' WWII Wreck Found

"Scrap from such widespread bombing has been utilized in people’s homes and villages," Watson said, "for everything from house foundations to planter boxes to buckets, cups and cowbells."

Photos: Italian WWII Pilot Found Buried -- Still On His Seat

"(The bombs have) also created a scrap metal industry which is now shrinking, but has been responsible for many deaths as poor villages recover and exchange this dangerous resource for money," Watson said. Today there are a number of NGOs working to clear Laos of these mines and bombs. But at the current rate it could take more than 100 years to clear them all. In the meantime, people here are going to have to continue living alongside these deadly relics of war. You can see

more of Mark Watson's photos here

.