Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Bomb detection

The STOC deadline approaches quickly. But in the mean time, be glad you don't live in Iraq: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/04/world/middleeast/04sensors.html?hp

Apparently the Iraqi government has spent tens of millions of dollars on bomb detection "technology" that seems just to be an expensive stick that works "on the same principle as a Ouija board" The devices cost up to $60,000 each. What do they do?

ATSC’s promotional material claims that its device can find guns, ammunition, drugs, truffles, human bodies and even contraband ivory at distances up to a kilometer, underground, through walls, underwater or even from airplanes three miles high. The device works on “electrostatic magnetic ion attraction,” ATSC says.

To detect materials, the operator puts an array of plastic-coated cardboard cards with bar codes into a holder connected to the wand by a cable. “It would be laughable,” Colonel Bidlack said, “except someone down the street from you is counting on this to keep bombs off the streets.”

Proponents of the wand often argue that errors stem from the human operator, who they say must be rested, with a steady pulse and body temperature, before using the device.

Then the operator must walk in place a few moments to “charge” the device, since it has no battery or other power source, and walk with the wand at right angles to the body. If there are explosives or drugs to the operator’s left, the wand is supposed to swivel to the operator’s left and point at them.

If, as often happens, no explosives or weapons are found, the police may blame a false positive on other things found in the car, like perfume, air fresheners or gold fillings in the driver’s teeth.

Most distressingly, apparently for the price of one of these devices, it would be possible to buy as many as 6 bomb-sniffing dogs, which actually do work (but take more time).

2 comments:

Warren said...

It's conceivable that such a device could actually be useful despite its inability to do its purported job. The police may use the wands as an excuse to determine and follow their subconscious suspicions. There's certainly precedent for that sort of thing working, for example the placebo effect in medicine.

There's an interesting question of which methods finds the most contraband: wand-aided screenings, random screenings, or asking police to consciously choose suspicious vehicles for screening. I have no basis to guess what a scientific study of that question would find.

Aaron said...

Warren: I don't know which of those techniques would work better either. But if we included bomb-sniffing dog into the mix, then I'd be willing to take a bet!