Most body scanners are designed to work one person at a time, checkpoint style. QinetiQ has developed a scanner that can be used in crowded places without having to slow down or stop moving targets. The body scanner, capable of detecting hidden explosives or weapons on a person, has been demonstrated publicly in the United Kingdom for the first time.

The QinetiQ SPO-NX

SPO-NX from QinetiQ – a company spun out of the UK’s Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA) in 2001 – can quickly screen large groups of people for concealed weapons or explosives in a passive, non-intrusive way, without needing people to stop or slow down. The system was built into the immersive Securing Crowded Places Demonstrator at UK Security Expo 2016 last November, consisting of three linked zones set in and close to the entrance of the Olympia exhibition centre in London.

To safeguard privacy, the system does not generate images of the body beneath the subject’s clothing. Instead, it displays a video-style image of the subject with a “threat level” overlaid when it detects unusual objects concealed on an individual, enabling law enforcement or security personnel to investigate further. The system is entirely passive and does not emit radiation.

Upgraded security screening

In 2014, the USA’s Transport Security Administration (TSA) awarded QinetiQ a 24-month contract to implement the technology. The system – an upgrade from the QinetiQ SPO-7R already in use by the US Transportation Security Administration – enables the operator to scan crowds and search for anomalies, without the need to disrupt the flow of foot traffic through the area, minimising inconvenience and enabling security screening in locations where it was impractical before.

By scanning the crowd before they converge, risk is managed without the need to slow down the footfall further
(Click to see larger image)
The QinetiQ SPO-NX is designed to operate in relatively large, open spaces such as a train station concourse

The law enforcement community has been asking for this solution for many years,” says Colin Cameron, Technical Leader, Protective Security Technologies at QinetiQ. “Under the supervision of the Transportation Security Administration, some law enforcement teams have been using the technology at special events and on some of the country’s busiest mass transit systems, including rail, metro and commuter ferry. Last Thanksgiving holiday, for example, it was deployed as part of enhanced security measures at Washington Union Station in central Washington DC.”

Passive Millimetre Wave Technology

The scanning system uses Passive Millimetre Wave Technology, which exploits part of the electromagnetic spectrum that sits between visible/infrared and radio. “It therefore has characteristics of both parts, so for example we can build pseudo-optical cameras in a similar way to infrared cameras, but we can also see through materials and obscurants just like radio waves can penetrate these materials,” explains Cameron. “So for security applications, we can build sensors that can sense or see through materials and obscurants. In the case of the SPO-NX system, we exploit this approach to find potential suicide bombers or people with large concealed weapons.”

But with what sort of numbers of people can the system operate and at what rate? Facial recognition systems operating on moving video targets, for example, can be limited to a certain number of faces caught in a single frame of video. “At the UK Security Expo we achieved a rate of 380 people an hour, but this was limited by the particular concept of operation and other factors. It takes about four to five seconds to scan one person, so throughput rates could be significantly higher.”

Operator-controlled scanning

Unlike airport scanning systems that mostly require people to pass through a “checkpoint” arrangement, the SPO-NX is designed to operate in relatively large, open spaces such as a train station concourse, but without necessarily scanning all of the people all of the time. Whether the deployment of such a system in Brussels or Paris could have detected the guns and explosives being carried by the perpetrators of those terrorist attacks is a matter for speculation.

"The SPO-NX system is completely passive and privacy-protecting"

Depending on the concept of operation at a particular event or location, the operator may or may not wish to scan 100% of people passing the sensor,” explains Cameron. “There is a trade-off between scanning people that have no restriction placed on them for security versus slowing people or funnelling people through a checkpoint of some type to ensure 100% scanning – even if it is a high throughput checkpoint. Different users are likely to use this technology in different ways and random sampling of crowds is certainly one viable approach.”

To get an idea of the scale and scope of operation, it helps to consider the range limits of the SPO-NX. The standard model has a range of 6m to 15m. A longer-range option will also be available, with a range of up to around 25m with a larger front lens on the sensor. This moves the security perimeter further back, making the earlier detection of a threat possible, explains Cameron, especially where there is a high throughput of people flowing into a contained space. By scanning the crowd before they converge, risk is managed without the need to funnel or slow down the footfall further. At present the scanner is operator-controlled, but part of the roadmap at QinetiQ is the development of automated tracking.

Privacy-protected scanning system

So, what differentiates this system from other scanning systems available? “The SPO-NX system is completely passive and privacy-protecting,” says Cameron. “It is therefore safe and easy for end users to deploy, because there are no privacy or other regulatory issues to navigate that some competitive systems have. It also allows fully non-cooperative scanning – people being scanned do not need to stop or pause their journey and do not need to divest any objects from their pockets or from their person.”

SPO-NX is a portable system that can be set up by one person in less than five minutes. This makes it a cost-effective asset that can be re-deployed at a new venue or location as required. Alternatively, it can be fixed permanently on a wall or ceiling mount. It is a real-time system, self-calibrates and can be operated locally at the sensor head or, for example, remotely from a CCTV control room.”

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Ron Alalouff Contributing Editor,

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