TSA pulls out of puffers, wants to fund improved X-ray technology

After wasting $15m on GE's fragile puffer technology, TSA wants to reallocate $20m to improving X-ray technology. But there's still no viable option for liquid detection.

Millions of dollars allocated for so-called puffer technology, which was supposed to be able to detect explosives in bags by blowing puffs of air, will be reallocated to something that actually works, the Transportation Safety Agency signaled, according to the Washington Post.

The proposal calls for a shift of $20 million from the puffers to fund improvements in X-ray technology. After the upgrades, the X-ray machines would be able to take multiple images of the contents of carry-on bags, giving screeners an extra chance to detect suspicious items, including bottles or containers that might hold explosives, officials and experts said.

"What gives me the capability to find explosives now?" Kip Hawley, head of the Transportation Security Administration, asked in an interview. "The answer is X-rays. We're looking at where we can get the biggest bang for the buck."

Good idea. Puffers cost $160,000 a pop but don't often work. The government has bought 93 puffers from General Electric and Smiths Detection, which have collected, if you do the math, close to $15 million.

The puffers break down too often because their sensors get clogged with dust in the busy airport environment, TSA officials said. The $160,000 devices also can't detect liquid explosives, they said.

The TSA has stopped taking delivery of the devices, which are built by General Electric Co. and Smiths Detection, until improvements are made, TSA officials said. The officials said they did not plan to pull puffers out of service. Just a month ago, the TSA called the devices "state-of-the-art machines" in a press release.

But why, critics ask, trust the TSA to make any better decisions about new X-ray technology than they have about puffers or other technology?

"This seems like another attempt to bring on new technology when we have had a series of failures, and I have no confidence that the redirected funds are going to be better spent than the funds they have spent already," said Michael Greenberger, director for the Center of Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland School of Law.

The US still can't detect liquids or gel explosives and experts say such a detection device is years away.

"When you put them in a commercial environment, with people taking shoes off and whatever they are doing, a nice clean sensor is one thing," DHS' James Tuttle said. "Once it is in there for six months and you dirty that sensor up, it's like dirtying up a car. It just doesn't perform as well. We need to test these things in an operational environment."


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