X-ray scanner helps Heathrow fight drugs smuggling

London's Heathrow Airport is using the world's first automatic narcotics detection system to spot illegal drugs in baggage.

London's Heathrow Airport is using the world's first automatic narcotics detection system to spot illegal drugs in baggage.

Select baggage arriving in the UK. from high-risk narcotics producing and trafficking countries is put through the x-ray diffraction scanner, which can pinpoint the exact location of potential narcotics without opening bags or disturbing contents, reducing the need for canine and hand searches. Previously, each suspect piece of luggage was inspected manually, taking as much as 30 minutes per bag.

Morpho Detection, which developed the XRD 3500 system, says it has already been deployed in Germany for automatic detection of explosives in baggage. The company partnered with the UK Border Agency to program the machine for Class A narcotics detection.

"As movement between countries becomes easier, the risk for narcotics smuggling increases," said Richard Tomsett, manager, Emerging Technologies Team, UK Border Agency. "Reducing the time it takes to inspect each piece of luggage has allowed us to deploy our resources more broadly, expanding the number of bags we are able to search."

First deployed at Heathrow in February 2009, the XRD 3500 system can distinguish drugs and explosives from innocuous materials in luggage. At Heathrow, the first airport to use the technology strictly to combat drug smuggling, reduced inspection times have allowed the airport to expand its operation and inspect more luggage with fewer staff.

Dennis Cooke, president and CEO, Morpho Detection, says the XRD 3500 represents a major upgrade to previous baggage-screening solutions. XRD technology identifies materials based on their molecular composition, not densities or other less distinctive characteristics, and can reliably identify threat substances in many forms – including powders, solids and liquids – where other technologies cannot.

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