Does Airport Security Really Make Us Safer?

We build bombs, put sniffer dogs to the test and see if 'robocops' will patrol airports..
23 November 2014
Presented by Chris Smith, Ginny Smith


Travel by air has increased by over 60% in the last decade and annual global air traffic is expected to reach 3.6 billion passenger journeys by 2016 meaning that there are at least 1 million people airborne aboard planes at any moment in time. But, as air traffic grows, so do concerns about smuggling and security. So keeping people safe is a major priority; but the processes can be intrusive and can also cause unpleasant delays at airports. This week we're looking at how technology - both old and new - can help to alleviate the hold ups and improve safety. Plus, in the news, the science behind fighting the flab, how spiderman has becomes a reality and why bankers have a tendency to cheat...

In this episode

Lunar Mission One

00:58 - UK mission to the Moon to be crowdfunded

Lunar Mission One launches a crowdfunding drive on Wednesday, which offers donors a chance to have a digital memory box buried on the moon.

UK mission to the Moon to be crowdfunded
with Professor Ian Crawford, Birkbeck University

A British-led consortium have announced plans to send an unmanned robot to the South Pole of the Moon to drill down 100 metres into the lunar surface, retrieve 4.5 billion year old rock samples, Lunar Mission Oneand deposit a time capsule! But this isn't a project paid for by the government: the £500 million required for the mission - which is set to launch in 2024 - will be completely crowd funded, meaning public donations will support it. As an incentive, if you donate £60, you can secure some data storage on the time capsule to send up some selfies or perhaps your favourite song, to be stored for up to a billion years on the Moon! Ian Crawford, one of the members of Lunar Mission One, as the project is known, spoke to Chris Smith...

Ian -  Well, it does have a very strong science case.  And scientifically, it's important to realise that no space mission ever in the history of the space age has landed at either pole of the Moon.  So, this is a completely unexplored territory.  And the south pole of the moon is especially interesting, but in particular, the surface soils at the lunar poles are very cold and it's considered quite likely that water and other volatiles delivered by comets may be trapped there.  And confirming this would be a key scientific goal of the mission.  But also, the south pole of the moon sits just within the giant south pole Aitken basin which is the biggest impact structure known in the Solar System.  It's on the far side of our Moon and it's 12 km deep.  It's deep enough that it may have extracted samples from the lunar mantle which we haven't got samples of yet.  And if we could sample the lunar mantle material, then in terms of confirming our theories for the origin of the Moon and how similar the Moon is to the Earth then samples of the lunar mantle are of particular scientific interest.  So, those are the two main things I think.  there are also others.  The south pole of the Moon is a possible site for astronomical observations of the wider universe and various other things.  But that's the main science case.

Chris -  It sounds like a pretty compelling case and will answer some important scientific questions. But given that Europe have just this month spent about a billion [Pounds] getting to a comet to learn a bit more about where our Solar System came from, why is this something that is being crowd-sourced?  Why aren't governments paying for this?

Ian -  Well, I don't think these are mutually exclusive, are they?  I mean, I think I can see very strong reasons why governments should fund lunar exploration.  But then there are very strong reasons why governments should fund the exploration of comets and Jupiter, and Mars, and the Solar System is a very big place.  So, I'd be delighted if governments were to spend more exploring the moon.  But given that governments and government-funded space agencies don't have the resources to do everything that they would like to do and arguably they should do, this is an alternative model really where people who perhaps think, wish that their governments were spending more, people will actually be delighted if more of their taxes went on space exploration rather than other things.  But that's not happening.  This is an opportunity for people who feel like that to get involved.  I mean, it's completely voluntary of course.  You just go to the Kickstarter website and contribute if you wish.  But if you do think that government should be spending more, in a sense, this is a way for people to put their money where their mouths are really and just get involved in space exploration.

Chris -  The average Kickstarter campaign isn't for 500 million though, is it?

Ian -  No.

Chris -  This is a pretty substantial amount.  Do you think you're going to succeed in raising this money?

Ian -  No.  This Kickstarter campaign, it's far beyond the resources of the Kickstarter.  The Kickstarter is to raise $1 million in order to define the science case, define the engineering requirements, to set in place what would be required to gather this much larger sum of money by - public subscription requires a huge amount of organisation.  But the Kickstarter campaign is to raise an initial $1 million essentially, to get the project kick-started.

Chris -  That's why it's called 'Kickstarter'.

Ian -  Absolutely.

Chris -  Let's just return to the Moon's surface for a moment then.  So if you are successful and you can get this probe there, what will the probe do because we've rather glossed over that and said it's going to get some samples. But how is it going to get those samples, and what will it do with them?

Ian -  The key science driver is to land at the south pole of the Moon and to drill somewhere between 20 meters and 100 meters depth and extract the samples which would then be studied with a suite of instruments.  And then having done that, you're left with a hole.  And so, the question is, what to do with it.  Now scientifically, we can use that hole to deploy scientific instruments down the borehole to measure the rate of heat flow from the lunar mantle to place a seismometer to detect moonquakes and things.  But in addition, the idea is, having extracted the borehole, drill the hole for scientific samples.  It's then available for us to put in place these time capsules. And, really, 100 meters below the lunar surface of the lunar south pole, essentially, this time capsule will be there forever.  It'll still be there when the Sun becomes a red giant, probably.

Chris -  Will the data still be readable because I know that the Doomsday laser discs, just 20 years after they were made, can't be read anymore.  They've all deteriorated. 

Ian -  Yes.  So, there are many possibilities of course and I'm not the person to talk to you about them because it's my job to advise on the science case!

Lose weight now

06:26 - Does the 5:2 diet work?

The 5:2 diet, or intermittent fasting, has become an increasingly popular strategy to achieve weight loss. But does it work?

Does the 5:2 diet work?
with Dr Mark P. Mattson, National Institute on Aging and Dr Michael Mosley

We hear a lot in the media about fad diets, and one of the more famous ones is the so-called 5:2 diet, also known as intermittent fasting, which involves drastically cutting down calories on two days a week. But Lose weight nowdoes the science behind it stack up? A new review of the evidence suggests that it might. One of the researchers who's been putting this diet to the test in laboratory mice and in humans is Mark Mattson, from America's National Institute on Ageing, as he explained to Kat Arney...

Mark -  Our work started in animals and we found in others that if you have the animals fast intermittently, for example in our lab, we have them fast every other day, so 24 hours no food then they can eat the next day and so on, they can live up to 30% longer.

Kat -  The animals that you're looking at in the lab presumably, you can control their access to food.  What's the evidence that this kind of restricted diet may have benefits in humans?

Mark -  So far, there's been only a few controlled studies.  Dr. Michelle Harvie at the University of Manchester, and she works with women at risk for breast cancer because of their family history and also they're overweight.  There are over 100 women.  They were divided into two groups.  One group, we had them reduce their daily calorie intake by 25%, so counting calories each day.  The other group, we had them 2 days a week eat only 1 modest meal of about 500 calories.  We followed them for 6 months and we found that both groups lost weight but the women on what's now called the 5:2 diet lost more belly fat and their ability to regulate glucose was improved more than the women who counted calories every day.

Kat -  What's going on at a molecular level that might explain this?

Mark -  So, glucose normally, if you're eating regular meals, is the main source of energy for cells and it's stored in the liver.  When that's depleted, which usually occurs in around 12 hours, then what happens is your body starts mobilising energy from fat.  So, that's one major change that happens.  Probably explains in part in a loss of belly fat in the study we did.  Much more work needs to be done in humans to determine if and which types of intermittent fasting diets would be optimal for health.  But let's say that some particular diet was clearly established, for example, the 5:2 diet, to be consistently beneficial in many groups of people, then the issue is how to work this type of eating pattern into the daily and weekly routine.

Kat -  Saying is one thing, but doing is quite another.  Whilst the 5:2 approach may have its weight loss benefits, is it actually feasible to periodically fast for months on end?  Whilst making a BBC Horizon documentary, Dr. Michael Mosley tried fasting for 2 days a week and he's written a book about his experience.

Michael -  On a Monday, I get up and I have some scrambled eggs for breakfast because the protein keeps you fuller.  That's about 180 calories, then I skip lunch and in the evening, I have a pile of vegetables and say, a bit of fish.  That's probably about another 300 calories.  So, the whole lot adds up to maybe 500 calories.  So, I do that Monday, Tuesday - eat normally, Wednesday normally, and on Thursday, I kind of do the same thing again.  I did that initially for 12 weeks and in the course of that, I lost around 9 kilos.  What was really good is, almost all of it was fat.  So, my body fat went down from 28% to 21%.

Kat -  How did you feel particularly on the days where you were restricting your calories?  Did you feel lightheaded or did you just get on with things?

Michael -  I just got on with things.  Actually, I found that I became more energetic.  The evolutionary perspective on that one is that our remote ancestors they had feast and famine.  If they didn't have food, they couldn't just kind of lie on the floor and wait for food to come.  They had to get out there and become more active.  And that's what drives you.  I think there are lots and lots of myths about food and one of them is this thing called 'starvation mode'.  If you don't eat regularly then your blood glucose will fall to the floor and you feel faint.  It is completely an utter nonsense.  Along with the idea that if you stop eating then your metabolic rate slows down, because the studies I've looked at where they have taken volunteers, kept them without food for 6 days,  metabolic rate actually goes up.  It's only in periods of prolonged starvation and when you lose a lot of weight that your metabolic rate goes down.  So, there's a lot of myths out there which need to be hit over the head.

Kat -  As a human being, I go, "Wow!  That sounds amazing!" but as a scientist, I go, "You're just one person.  That's not exactly scientific."  What does the science say about this kind of approach?

Michael -  Well, the science is very strong certainly from the animal data.  Dr. Mattson has done a lot of stuff, Krista Varady has done a lot of things, Dr. Michelle Harvie up in Manchester has similarly done some pretty big trials.  For example, they saw greater fat loss, also, significantly greater improvements in things like insulin sensitivity and also in inflammatory markers.

Kat -  How important do you think it is that we bring science and proper research to weight loss?

Michael -  I think it's absolutely vital.  I think we've applied science to pretty well every aspect of our life and I just think that it is hugely important that we look at it on the big studies,  obviously, studies are hugely important.  But also, trying to understand what's happening at the cellular level.  And that's what this paper is all about.  It is both a description of studies which had been done with humans over quite long periods of time,  but it's also about the sort of pathways, and that's what makes it interesting I think.

Gecko-inspired technology

12:29 - Spiderman becomes a reality

A 70 kg man has climbed a glass wall using Spiderman style technology, by mimicking the feet of geckos.

Spiderman becomes a reality
with Dr Richard Johnston, University of Swansea

Spiderman has become a reality! Taking their inspiration from the feet of geckos -Gecko-inspired technology small lizards which can run up walls and stick to ceilings -  scientists in the States have created hand-sized pads that enable a 70kg man to climb straight up a vertical pane of glass!

Swansea University materials scientist Richard Johnston has been taking a look at the new invention, which could even prove useful out in space, as he explained to Chris Smith... 

Richard -  Researchers in the US have developed a pad which can attach to a human's hands which can allow them to scale a sheet glass building, much like the pads on a gecko's foot  allows it to scale vertical walls.  In the past, people have developed something called a gecko tape as a common term, which mimics gecko's feet in terms of how they adhere to surfaces.  But it's always been difficult to scale those up without significant loss in adhesion or stickiness.

Chris -  And how does a gecko's foot enable it to do that and what this person is now doing, because the paper is quite striking.  You see this guy standing there, going vertically up a sheet of glass.  How is he doing it?

Richard -  It is extremely exciting to see that as well.  With gecko's they have toes covered in millions of tiny hairs.  So, these are typically thinner than a human hair.  On the tip of each of these hairs - so if you imagine a paintbrush, a paintbrush has a wooden handle and then at the tip of the paintbrush, you have lots and lots, hundreds and thousands of even finer hairs.  And so, that's what a gecko has on its feet - millions of individual hairs which are then tipped with even finer strands.

Chris -  How do the hairs actually generate the adhesion with the surface though?

Richard -  Each of those tiny hairs utilises something called Van der Waal's forces.  These are tiny electrical forces between the gecko's hairs and the surface which it's adhering to.  And those billions of tiny forces add up to enough force that holds the gecko onto that surface.

Chris -  And the group in America, they've managed to recreate a form of that, but in a sufficiently big pad so that you get a sufficiently big force to hold up a person.

Richard -  Yes.  They've come up with an interesting design with slightly different materials, properties for the component parts, whereas the gecko utilises natural materials like collagen. They've use nitinol which is a nickel-titanium-based material.  So, if you were to look at it, it's a pad about the size or just larger than a human hand.  On that pad, there are a number of separate adhesive pads.  This is around 25 and each one of those individually still has those millions of tiny hairs.  So, it works on the same principles as the gecko foot in terms of intermolecular forces.

Chris -  Are there any applications beyond just Spiderman?

Richard -  It's really interesting actually, because the actual interface material - so all of these fine hairs - that was developed some time ago, it's just the tendons and the material design behind that that's new this scale up.  But the actual material that they've used has been tested in space, and it works.  So, you can now imagine you've got a scale up that can hold the weight of a human or something the size of a human that could potentially be used in space.  So, increasing mobility of astronauts, you can attach and remove these pads in less than a second.  So, it's very fast fastening.  Even in our human made built environment, we've designed our living spaces to have shiny surfaces, to have vertical flat walls.  And so, if we can increase human mobility in terms of inspection, construction, then potentially it has lots of applications.

16:42 - Fish tags attract seal predators

Sneaky seals have learned to listen out for acoustic tags on fish to find their next meal.

Fish tags attract seal predators
with Amanda Stansbury, University of St Andrews

Marine biologists often use electronic tags to keep track of fish populations and Sealmovements. A small transponder is attached to the fish and emits a series of high frequency 'pings', alerting researchers to a shoal's location. But a team at St Andrews University have now shown that grey seals have learned to associate these 'pings' with food - the tags are basically acting as a giant dinner bell! Graihagh Jackson spoke to Amanda Stansbury about what this means for our fishy friends...

Amanda -   Fish tags are used on several different fish species to track populations and measure the survivability rate so we get an idea of how fish stocks are doing.

Graihagh -   So, how do these tags actually work?

Amanda -   So, what these tags do is we put them on the animals and the tags emit a noise that's high pitched in frequency.  What they do is when these fish are swimming along and they emit these sounds, we can then pick up the sounds with receivers or listening stations.  By that way, we can track where the fish are and how many tagged fish go past a certain receiving station.

Graihagh -   So, could you picture a bit like sonar on submarines, you get this poop, poop, poop.

Amanda -   Yes, though the tags that we use, it has a high frequency tone with a little bit more like hearing an actual sound and it's a little bit longer.  Though it's really interesting because with seals, the frequency of these tags, it's very high frequency and it's just on the edge of the seal's hearing limits.

Graihagh -   Indeed, it's way, way, way beyond anything we can hear.  These fish tags are emitting sounds at 69,000 hertz and you and I, we can only hear up to 20,000 hertz.  So, if I played you this and this, you can't hear the beeps of the fish tag.  But given the extremely high frequency of the sounds that these fish tags are emitting, it's surprising that seals can detect them at all.  So, what's going on?  How do they know where these tagged fish are?

Amanda -   Instead of maybe hearing this high frequency sound, they might actually hear a click that's created from the onset of the tag sound.  Each time the tag produces a sound, it's in a sequence of 8 pulses.  These pulses are very short and quick and it results in what sounds like a click when it starts and stops.

Graihagh -   With a bit of clever digital manipulation, we changed the frequency of the fish tag beeps, so it would be within the human hearing range.  These clicks essentially act as a giant dinner bell.  Fish anyone?

Amanda -   Past research had known that the seals might be able to hear these sounds but our study is the first to show that they learn to use the tags to their benefit and find their prey.

Graihagh -   Has this behaviour been seen in the wild before?  Could it not just be a case of these seals learning to know what these sounds meant within your tests?

Amanda -   Currently, there aren't any known studies that have tracked these in wild animals.  However, we do think this might be occurring for example in wild salmon that have been tagged.  Some salmons have been tagged with acoustic tags, just like the ones we use and other salmon have been tagged with a silent tag.  It doesn't make any noise.  When we look at the survivability of these animals, the acoustically tagged salmon are less likely to survive.  Presumably, we're thinking that predators might be finding them and that's why the tags might be having an effect in wild populations.

Graihagh -   So, this is presumably great news for predators, but not so great for their prey because I'm guessing, we're tagging these fish stocks because they're in decline.  Given that there's also a lot of research on how these human made noises like boat engines have, have negative impacts on marine life.  Should we therefore be thinking, re-thinking even how we track and monitor not just fish stocks, but also birds and other mammals as well?

Amanda -   Yes and so, what's really important with this is when we tag animals, we need to consider the entire ecosystem that they're in and the other animals that are in the environment, whether they can perceive the tag.  It's important if we put tags on prey species.  If they're around predators, we don't want to inadvertently decrease their numbers.  But also vice versa, if we were to put tags on predators then the prey might hear predators approaching and evade them.  And so, we need to be really careful when we introduce these sound systems into an environment and what kind of impact they'll have.


21:27 - Are bankers inherently dishonest?

Bankers are routinely accused of being dishonest - but is there any science that backs this claim? New research claims yes...

Are bankers inherently dishonest?
with Professor Michel Maréchal, University of Zurich

Bankers are among the most publicly-distrusted professionals at the moment. And Moneythis appears to be a label that they deserve, because a new study has shown that when bankers are thinking about banking, they are much more likely to behave dishonestly. Researchers at the University of Zurich asked more than 100 financiers to play a coin-tossing game and report the numbers of heads or tails they threw, knowing that they would get a financial reward for every head they reported. When they played after answering questions about their home-lives or leisure activities they totted up the coin tosses honestly. But if they played after being put into a banking mindset first, by talking about their jobs, they began to cheat, as Michel Maréchal explained to Chris Smith...

Michel -  So, we wanted to analyse whether the business culture in the banking industry favours dishonest behaviour.  We found in a survey that actually, the image of the banking industry is quite poor.  So, people think that bankers are more dishonest than criminals.  We were not only interested in the level of dishonesty, but whether the culture in the banking industry is likely to favour or tolerate dishonest behaviour.

Chris -  What did you do?  How did you explore that?

Michel -  The goal is to measure the influence of the culture.  This is not an easy task.  What we did is, we randomly assigned bank employees into two different experimental conditions.  So, in the main experimental group, we reminded the participants of their occupation and role by asking them about their professional background.  So for example, we asked them what bank they work for or how many years they have been working in the banking industry.  This manipulation puts their occupation and role into associated norms on top of their minds.  In contrast, we had a control condition, asking them question about for example, their leisure activity.

Chris -  I see.  So, what you're trying to do is put them in the banking mind-set before they do the tasks in your study or put them into a more kind of outside work mind-set and see whether when they're in their workplace mind-set, their level of honesty differs.

Michel -  Exactly.  So, subjects were instructed to flip a coin 10 times and to report the outcome of these coin tosses.  They knew in advance for each coin toss whether they would win $20 US if they flipped heads or if they flipped tails.  Because the subjects were unobserved while they were doing this task was impossible for us to identify who exactly cheated and who not.  But we know that around 50% of the coin flips should have been successful if everyone would have reported honestly.

Chris -  So, if you look at the whole group of them together, you can ask, "Is the proportion who are winning higher than chance would predict?"  and if so, that's telling you that there's some dishonesty going on.  People are misreporting what their real coin flips were.

Michel -  Exactly.

Chris -  You did this for people when they're in their banking mind-set, having been primed by these, 'think about your job' words, versus people who were thinking about the golf course or going swimming or something.  Did you see a difference between those two conditions?

Michel -  Yes.  So, we have basically two results.  When the bankers thought about the leisure time, they were honest on average.  So then there was not much cheating.  But when they were reminded of their occupational role, so when they were primed in the mind-set of a banker then they started to cheat significantly, which suggests the business culture or the norms in the banking industry favour dishonest behaviour.

Chris -  How do you think that this finding, which is fairly dramatic, should be taken forward?  What should be done and can anything be done to sort this out?  Is there any precedent for this sort of situation?

Michel -  The result suggests that banks should actually promote more honest behaviour by changing the norms that are associated with the profession as a banker.  But this will obviously take time and will require actions from various angles.  Many experts have actually suggested that bankers should take a professional oath, similar to the Hippocratic Oath for physicians.  However, such an oath alone would not be sufficient.  It's necessary that banks actually make a detailed analysis of their work routines to find out where and when the employees make critical decisions regarding norm obedience.  This will allow to generate common knowledge about what type of behaviours are actually socially desirable and which not, and also will allow that the peers enforce these new honesty norms.

Red Explosive

26:19 - Building bombs in the name of science

Jackie Akhavan works on how to best detect explosives, which she does by manufacturing bombs in the lab!

Building bombs in the name of science
with Professor Jackie Akhavan, Cranfield University

Travel by air has increased by over 60% in the last decade and The International Air Transport Association - IATA - expect global air traffic to reach 3.6 billion passenger journeys by 2016. Red ExplosiveCurrently estimates suggest that, at any moment in time, there are at least 1 million people airborne aboard planes all around the world. But as air traffic grows, so do concerns about smuggling and security, particularly at the moment, with governments in many countries describing the threat from terrorism as severe. So keeping people safe is a major priority; but the processes can be intrusive and can also cause unpleasant delays at airports. Jackie Akhavan is a Professor of Explosive Chemistry at Cranfield University and works on how to best detect concealed explosives, as she explained to Ginny Smith...

Jackie -  At the moment, the new systems is the SORS which is the Spatially Offset Raman Spectroscopy,  where you can shine light and it'll actually go through a bottle into your liquid explosive.  It's very, very new technology and it's been actually brought into airports at the moment.  So hopefully in the future, we should be able to go through airports a little bit quicker than we are now.

Ginny -  And would that mean that I'd be able to take my bottle of water onto the plane with me, rather than having to empty it out and then refill it?

Jackie -  Realistically, yes. 

Ginny -  Brilliant news.  Are there any other kind of systems that are in place at the moment?

Jackie -  There is another one that's been looked at, which is a PVS system which is Permittivity Voltage Sensing and this is a new way of looking at their electrical properties which is rather different than the SORS which is the spectroscopic properties.

Ginny -  Interesting!  I think I've heard that you've also been using bees to detect bombs.  Is that true?

Jackie -  Yes.  We have had look at the bees.  Recently, I was at a presentation at New Scotland Yard and they've been able to train bees within 10 minutes using the Pavlov Dogs type of training to detect people who have diabetes, the smell in their breath.  They also claim that they also be able to detect some forms of cancer.  So, with these all for hindsight, they thought that bees might be able to detect explosives.  We've actually manufactured pure explosives to the bees and we found that the bees couldn't actually detect the pure explosive.  What it could detect was the additives in the manufactured explosives.  So, these are the volatile additives.  So, in one way, it might work but unfortunately, it's not the pure explosive that bees can detect.

Ginny -  So, we're not going to be seeing swarms of bees at customs anytime soon then.

Jackie -  No.  I must admit, I felt really sorry for the bees.  Another thing I thought to myself was, could the public actually trust their selves to bees.  That's the other thing, so I don't think you'll see them pretty soon, no.

Ginny -  So, you spent your time trying to develop new types of explosives that can evade detection methods so that you can improve these detection methods.  Is that right?

Jackie -  We're not actually developing explosives to evade it.  What we have the capability to do is to manufacture improvised explosives and these are the ones that are very similar to the terrorist type of explosives which of course, that's what you want your detectors to detect.  And I must admit most detectors will detect the explosives.  The hardest thing is they go off with everything else as well.  So, like the perfume, so it's thought non-goers which is the most difficult things.

Ginny -  Okay, so what you might have in the bottle might not be an explosive.  It might be shampoo and it can still flag it up.

Jackie -  I don't know what shampoo does but Chanel #5 certainly will do.  It's something that's quite volatile.

Ginny -  How many different types of explosives are there and how can you make one thing that can detect all of them?

Jackie -  There's numerous explosives out there and the hardest thing is, it's very difficult to make one thing that will detect an explosive.  So, you will probably have an array of detectors.  So, maybe using the SORS, the Raman spectroscopy, linked to maybe this one that does the electrical properties.  and we also do another one for European Union contract on colour metrics which is another technique where polymers will change colour when they come into contact with explosive vapour.  So, I don't think we will rely on one technique.  There'd be an array of techniques.

Ginny -  I imagine, it must be quite tricky as well to keep of sort of one step ahead as people keep developing these new homemade explosives.  Very quickly, can you tell me how you go about trying to do that?

Jackie -  In respect, you read the literature, you keep in contact with what's going on out there.  You also relies with obviously the home office and the other areas which also keep an eye on what's out there.  We try as chemist to predict what might be the next type of homemade explosives.  The people making them are chemists.  We're chemists, so hopefully, we'll be on the same wavelength.

Image of cocaine drug packs confiscated by the US Federal Agency DEA.

32:04 - Detecting illegal drugs using light

A technique using a light detects drugs that have been dissolved in liquids, a way crafty criminals attempt to smuggle drugs...

Detecting illegal drugs using light
with Dr Tasnim Munshi and Dr Richard Telford, University of Bradford

One way to smuggle illicit cargoes - whether they're explosives or other substances Image of cocaine drug packs confiscated by the US Federal Agency drugs - is in suitcases and hand baggage. But because scanning and opening these to test them is relatively easy, criminals have changed tactics. A recent trend is to dissolve drugs in alcoholic drinks, like rum, which is a headache for customs officers because it means they need to open - and potentially destroy - bottles in a shipment to be able to test them.

Now scientists are fighting back, using a light-scattering technique called Raman Spectroscopy that can see what's inside a liquid, inside a bottle, without having to open it. Amelia Perry went to meet the researchers behind the breakthrough, Bradford University's Tasnim Munshi and Richard Telford...

Tasnim -   Raman spectroscopy is a very useful technique.  It's fast, easy to use, and with recent new developments in software, it's got to the stage where it doesn't need a trained scientist to use the instrument especially in security settings.

Amelia -   So, how does Raman spectroscopy work, Richard?

Richard -   Raman spectroscopy works by shining a laser directly onto the sample.  The light interacts with the sample and gives us what we call a spectrum which is essentially like a chemical fingerprint of that sample.  These can then be matched against databases that people have built up.  It then tells exactly what that sample is and this has obviously got great uses in finding drug samples in a forensic sense.  With Raman spectroscopy, we can choose to focus the laser light directly through the side of the container that we're interested in. For example, we can focus that laser straight through the side of a bottle or through a plastic bag and we can actually collect the spectrum from the material that's contained within that.

Amelia -   We then moved into the laboratory in order to see exactly how this technique works.  Upon entry into the lab, I was confronted by a rather large machine which looked a lot like a microscope attached to a giant metal box around 2 metres long in total.  When turned on, the metal box generates a very strong laser beam that is focused through the microscope lens onto the drug sample.  The readout that is created called a Raman spectrum appears on the computer screen, ready for analysis.

Richard -   So, I'm just going to bring into focus a very small crystal of the cocaine sample that I've put on the microscope slide which is then going to allow us to expose that to the laser energy and acquire a Raman spectrum.  The series of peaks that we can now see on screen give us a chemical signature or fingerprint if you like of the cocaine sample that we've just analysed.  By matching that to databases that we've previously acquired, we can get our result.

Amelia -   We then moved back into the office to look at a handheld version of the large piece of instrumentation we had tested out in the laboratory.  It is being developed by Thermo Scientific and has been named TruNarc.

Tasnim -   It works in exactly the same way as a larger lab-based instrument.  It has an in-built database of a large number of drugs ranging all the way from things like cocaine, ketamine, LSD, ecstasy.

Amelia -   This device is small enough to fit into your hands and has been right now is actually shining a laser coming out of the side into a sample pot.  So, she simply presses a button and on the screen, it says, 'scanning in progress'.  So, what's happening here, Tasnim?

Tasnim -   The TruNarc system works in exactly the same as the lab-based instrument.  It's scanning the sample and instead of giving us a very complicated spectrum, it matches it against our database and it's clearly come up.  It's shown that it's a ketamine sample and we've analysed this sample through a nice clear glass bottle.  So obviously, we don't know we'd get drugs in nice clear bottles.  And so, we've got another sample here.  we've got cocaine dissolved in rum in a brown glass bottle.  We're going to just try this and it's clearly shown up it's cocaine hydrochloride.

Amelia -   So, what are the benefits of this handheld device, Tasnim?

Tasnim -   As we've just seen, it's a really quick system to use.  It takes about 30 seconds to collect a spectrum.  It's portable so it's battery-powered, so we can use it anywhere.  It does not need a trained scientist to use it and it saves us a lot of work in terms of sending off samples to labs.  It's very, very specific, so it'll tell us whether it's a sugar or whether it's a drug of abuse.

Amelia -   Where can this device be used?

Richard -   So, it can be used in airports by customs department to check for smuggling of drugs of abuse, in large shipments of alcohols for example.  It can be used by police forces and is currently been used by a number of national and international police departments where they can get a very, very quick analysis of what types of drugs they may have confiscated from people they've arrested.

Amelia -   So, it seems like a really effective system, but are there any limitations?

Tasnim -   There are some limitations.  For example, if it's a very, very complex mixture, would the instrument be able to pick it up?  We think so.  We've tried it with a number of different mixtures and it does pick up mixtures.  With regards to different coloured liquids, we can work through coloured glass.  We've tried green, we've tried brown glass, and we've also tried in rum samples, so brown liquids.  But there will be some liquids where colour can be an issue.  With the big lab-based instruments, we've tried different wavelengths of light and that seems to work quite effectively and that can be incorporated into new portable instruments.  Again, the instrument is only as good as the database.  New drugs are continuingly coming onto the market and we can't really keep up with new legal highs.  We are working with the University of Lincoln's forensics department as well the manufacturers of the instruments to add to the database continuously.

Amelia -   What other applications are there for Raman spectroscopy as a technique?

Richard -   So, Raman spectroscopy is used in a huge variety of application areas, in a similar way to the drugs analysis in airports that we've already talked about.  The technique has been successfully used to detect explosive samples or even find ivory samples being smuggled into the country.  I use the technique primarily for analysis of pharmaceutical materials where for example, we can use it to detect different solid forms of prescribed pharmaceuticals.  It's also applied for example in food analysis in the food industry.

Tasnim -   And also, forgery of art, looking at age and composition of paint, so you can age paintings.  And finally, it's been sent to Mars on the next ExoMars Mission to check signatures of life, so a vast variety of applications.

38:25 - How good are sniffer dogs?

Sniffer dogs are used to detect drugs but how good are they? Can they sniff out all drugs? Or just a select few? And how are they trained?

How good are sniffer dogs?
with Sergeant Owen Rogers, Cambridgeshire Police Dog Unit

Do the cutting edge technologies used at airport to detect drugs and other dangers, Sniffer dogsmean that more traditional practices, like the use of sniffer dogs for example, have had their day? Sergeant Owen Rogers, from the Cambridgeshire Police Dog Unit, told Ginny Smith how our furry, four-legged friends continue to help us out...

Owen -  Well, they'll be looking for a number of different substances.  We have dogs that detect explosives and we have other dogs that will be looking for drugs or cash or weapons.

Ginny -  Why do you use dogs?  Is it because of their particularly good sense of smell?

Owen -  Dogs have massively enhanced sense of smell over humans.  Also, they can detect such small traces of any substance that might be being imported into the country.  

Ginny -  Just how good is their sense of smell compared to ours?

Owen -  It's not exactly known.  However, estimates vary between a hundred and one million times better sense of smell than humans.  It all depends on two things within the dog in comparison to the human.  The first being, the size of the olfactory membrane.  Estimates reckon that a German shepherd dog would have 100 million olfactory cells in comparison to a human's 5 million olfactory cells.  But it's not just that.  It's the area within the brain that is set aside for the detection of smells.  Once again, it's massively enhanced in a dog than a human.  Again, estimates are about 10% of the brain in a dog and about 0.25% in a human.

Ginny -  As well as being able to smell all these different smells, they'll actually be able to tell them apart as well.

Owen -  Scent discrimination is what we call it.  So for instance, a dog will be able to tell constituent ingredients of any substance whereas a human could just smell the entire substance.  For instance, tomato ketchup, we would just smell tomato and ketchup, but a dog would smell all the e-numbers, the sugar, the tomatoes themselves, and the salt.

Ginny -  Are there certain dogs that are better at this than other, certain breeds?

Owen -  We tend to use gundog breeds because of their level of drive, so we use spaniels or Labradors.  Sheep dogs are used, but generally, gundog breeds even up to the continental point of breeds.

Ginny -  I guess the Chihuahua wouldn't be quite as intimidating either.

Owen -  Intimidation isn't particularly high on the list, but a Chihuahua I think would - due to its size - find it difficult to cover the area.

Ginny -  How do you go about training a dog to become a sniffer dog?

Owen -  It's not just the breed that counts.  It's the actual dog and once you've identified a dog that has sufficient drive to take on the job, you then introduce the substances and you make the dog interested in the substance by rewarding it, for sniffing the substance in question.

Ginny -  So, lots of dog biscuits.

Owen -  Personally, I'm not in favour of biscuits.  But a tennis ball goes down very, very well indeed and you will condition the dog, essentially ,to stare at the source of the scent until the delivery of a ball.  So, dogs are not that intelligent and they will actually think that the ball will appear from the source.

Ginny -  How do you stop them getting distracted if someone had some tasty dog treats in their pocket or something?

Owen -  Well, that is very important.  However, for some reason, dogs just take to it and they are so driven by the delivery of their toy or the praise, or whichever other method of reward we give them, that they will avoid those distractions.

Ginny -  Can you give me an example of something that dogs have found?

Owen -  We've recently had a very, very large find of heroine.  The street value of which would've funded the existence of the dog section for many, many years.  Another excellent job was an armed robbery where one of my handlers arrived, tracked the robber from the scene to his home address then found him and then he got his other dog out and found the weapon that had been used in the robbery.  So, it's the whole thing that was all down to that one handler.

Ginny -  Do you think there's any way, if you wrapped it in sort of lots and lots of layers that you could ever hide the scent or something?

Owen -  Well, you have to be so forensically aware in order to ensure that there are no leakages of anything.  There is no scent without moisture and as a result over time, substances will dry out or the residual substance will dry out.  So yes, there are ways of doing it, but you've got to be very, very good.

Ginny -  How long does it take to train the dog and is it a case of, once it's trained then it's good to go for years and years, and years or do you have to keep refreshing them?

Owen -  It depends on what you're trying to achieve.  But for the scents to become imprinted within the dog, it can take just a matter of a few weeks.  But yes, you have to refresh the dogs very, very regularly, just to reinforce the reward for the find that they have.

Chris -  Owen, have you got tons of these stuff at home for personal consumption?

Owen -  I've got loads of them.

Chris -  Really, and you must presumably have this material in the workplace and in the car for dog retraining?

Owen -  Yes.  We do hold substances and they are used regularly for training, yes.

The K5 Robo-Cop

43:53 - Robocops patrolling airports near you...

Dubbed the K5, this 'robocop' acts as an effective security guard - and, better still, it won't need a bathroom or coffee break...

Robocops patrolling airports near you...
with Stacy Stephens, Knightscope

The US security company Knightscope have launched a device called the K5. It bears a striking resemblance to R2-D2 from Star Wars; the idea is that very soon these "Robocops" will support and even replace police and security personnel on the beat. They're fitted with a range of sensors and are updated continuously with crime and intelligence The K5 Robo-Copdata from their locality so they can even predict when and where crimes might be about to happen so they can focus their patrols on those areas. Co-creator Stacy Stephens spoke to Chris Smith about the K5...

Stacey -  Basically, what we have is a fully autonomous robot with a payload of sensors on-board.  Those sensors are always looking for any type of abnormal behaviour.  When it detects an abnormal behaviour, it will send an alert to a security operation centre so that somebody can look at the information and determine whether or not they need to deploy assets to that area.

Chris -  Wow!  This really is Robocop.

Stacey -  To a degree, it's definitely more observe and report than it is something that's offensive.  This is for looking.  It's not for acting.

Chris -  Can you just describe it for us?

Stacey -  It's called the K-5 because it is actually about 5 feet tall.  It's about 3 feet wide.  It's a little pill-shaped.  It looks like a very large R2D2.

Chris -  I just wondered if the K-5 is going to be a play on Dr Who's dog which is used to be called K-9 of course.

Stacey -  Definitely, not.  There's no exterminating here.  One of the obstacles that we needed to overcome was social acceptance and you have to have something that is designed in a way that people like to engage.  You cannot predict and prevent crime without the help of the average person.  And so, we wanted this to be something that was extremely friendly and very approachable.  So, that's why it's incredibly a beautiful machine in of itself.

Chris -  Can we just talk briefly about how it actually physically works?

Stacey -  So, the K-5 is an electric platform.  It uses lithium-ion batteries to charge it.  It does self-monitoring of its own health.  So, as the battery level drops, it will opportunistically charge itself on a charge pad.  While it is charging, it has the ability to continue monitoring the surroundings.  On-board each machine is a sensor payload that includes video, audio recording, hyper local weather, radiation, chemical, biological, airborne pathogen sensors.  And all of those sensors are constantly looking for anything abnormal.  So, you have a baseline of activity.  Once something goes outside of that baseline of activity, it flags it as an anomaly and then it starts looking at other data.  So, we can pull in data from local governments to see what's the historical data, what are the crime stats in that area, and all of that data is then run through a predictive analytics engine and it determines whether there is an alert that is worthy of showing to somebody.  And then once the software determines that there is an alert, then it will send that to the security operation centre for a human to actually look at through a web browser interface and then they can determine whether or not they need to deploy a human to take a strategic action.

Chris -  Talk us through actually how you see this being used then.  Where will you deploy it and how will it help with our present security situation?

Stacey -  A really great example would be kind of looking at airports.  You look at the way the security is done at airports, you have a lot of internal security and minimal external security.  So, you could put this along the perimeter of an airport with a number of sensors that are on-board, you can look at video feeds, listen to audio, you have license plate recognition on it, you have the potential for putting radiation, chemical and biological sensors, airborne pathogens.  And then as they patrol around the airport perimeter, they can be gathering intelligence and really start to get a better look at how secure the property is and keep it that way.

Chris -  Couldn't someone who really is hell-bent on being nefarious just run up behind it and shove a beanbag over the top of it?

Stacey -  Anything that can possibly happen will happen.  So whether it's somebody trying to tip it over or trying to kidnap it or as you said, put a bag over its head, it's going to happen.  However, as things are happening, it's learning its environment.  It knows what's normal behaviour and what's not normal behaviour and as somebody is approaching, if they're doing that type of furtive gesture, it will be caught and it will be sent back to the security operation centre because if any of the sensors are rendered inoperable, it will send an immediate alert to somebody to look and say, "Okay, what's going on?"  Secondly, we don't just deploy these in single unit applications.  We deploy multiple units so they can watch after each other.  So, just because you've covered one doesn't mean there's not another one locally that can see what's going on as well.

Chris -  What about sort of community-based policing?  Could these be deployed on to the streets of towns or housing areas to keep an eye on people's cars or their houses at night?

Stacey -  I think that long term applications are very widespread.  I think we have numerous different applications in which we can deploy the robots.  Early on, our target was really to try to do things that were more easily accessible. So corporate campuses, data centres, anywhere where you'd see private security like open air malls and things like that, parking lots, parking garages. But yes, absolutely.

Chris -  What about the cost of these things, both in terms of actually making one and putting it in place, and then also operating it?

Stacey -  We designed K-5 with exactly that in mind.  So, we actually sell them as a subscription, all inclusive.  It includes the robot, the maintenance, and the user interface, so it's incredibly affordable.

Chris -  Yes, indeed.  That must be sort of cheaper in fact than paying a person to walk along the same route.

Stacey -  It's not meant to replace humans, but it is meant to augment the way they do business.  So, we want to make sure that they have the data that they have necessary to make the strategic decisions and give them more information, and better intelligence.

Chris -  So, when can I buy one and how much is it going to cost me?

Stacey -  You'll be able to subscribe to the service starting in 2015 and it will cost you $6.25 an hour.  Right now, we're limiting deployments to 24/7 operations, so that comes to about $4,500 per month for 24/7 coverage.

A380 Airbus

50:38 - Why can't aeroplanes fly faster?

Are we there yet? We look at whether flights are going to be getting faster any time soon.

Why can't aeroplanes fly faster?

Sara - This week, we buckle our seat belts ready for takeoff with this question from listener, Paul Jenn.

Paul - I was on an interminable flight from New York to Hong Kong a few days ago and I don't understand why airplane manufacturers aren't working on increasing the speed of air travel.

Sara - So, why can't we fly just a little bit faster? Is it a case of better design and engineering or will we be stuck at this slow speed forever? Well, we're off to a flying start as Neil Scott, head

of engineering at Airbus shot back fast with this answer...

Neil - In short, speed costs fuel and money. If you're driving your car at 40-mile an hour and then accelerate to 80 miles an hour, what happens to fuel consumption? It goes up. The same is true on an aircraft. The faster you go, the more fuel you burn. Drag, which causes the increase of fuel burn, is actually proportional to the square of the speed [addendum: energy to overcome drag is proportional to the cube of the speed]. So, drag increases at a faster rate than increasing speed. So, you can't just get there more quickly, you have to pay for it. One of the biggest costs for an airline of course is fuel, therefore the likelihood of us designing a supersonic aircraft for major commercial flying is probably not going to happen anytime soon.

Sara - Basically, more speed means more air resistance, means that cheap holiday flight you were planning on booking won't be so cheap anymore.

Neil - Another advantage of decreasing fuel burn of course, is there's less CO2 emissions, less nitrous oxide emissions and less noise, so we all win.

Sara - Well, it's good to hear that we all benefit from flying slower, but is it a flight fancy to think I won't be stuck in the air for 13 hours at a time as a jet setting grandma?

Neil - At the moment, it's not possible to build a super efficient plane that's also super speedy and cost-efficient. But with future innovations in propulsion systems, that's engines, based for example on hydrogen or electricity, it might well be possible in the future.

Sara - Thanks, Neil. Maybe someday then. In the meantime Paul, maybe try to get some shuteye on the redeye. For next week, Matthew Boniface wrote in this yawn first of a question...

Matthew - Why do I yawn and why do cats yawn and can I catch a yawn from a cat?

Sara - What do you think?


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