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Developments in Bomb-proofing Luggage

By TON in Technology
Fri Jan 25, 2002 at 05:40:37 PM EST
Tags: Technology (all tags)

Scientific American has an interesting article "Lockerbie Insurance: Hardened Luggage Containers Can Neutralize Explosives", by David McMullin. McMullin describes a new FAA certified technology for bombproofing containers for aircraft. Advances like this seem to offer much better alternatives or supplements to the current program of bag matching and inspection being pursued in the US.

I suspect many people have started to get info fatigue from all the terrorism coverage, but I'm adding to it in the hopes that a positive and technologically interesting story might improve the situation.

Long before 9/11, the Lockerbie bombing got safety agencies thinking about new precautionary measures. The FAA set some standards for certifying bomb proof luggage carriers. Researchers at Delft University of Technology Structures & Materials Laboratory came up with a material called GLARE, for glass reinforced. This is a laminated material composed of aluminum, fiberglass, and adhesives. As the article describes, this is quite resistant to explosive force and fire.

I think this might be a more effective approach to aircraft security than bag inspection programs. Inspection always requires humans. They are fallible or may be corrupted. Bag inspection machines and procedures are expensive. The technology itself costs money, but it also costs time. When bag matching comes into full effect, the number of delayed, cancelled, and missed flights will increase. Though this cost isn't paid directly, it will be felt by all concerned.

By contrast, if a bag is on the plane, it is in the container. There is less opportunity for human failure or malice here. It will also protect against explosives that may not be detected by current machines. Continuously updating detectors will be costly, and will probably lag behind technology to conceal the explosives.

Obviously, no security technology will be foolproof. However, simpler measures with less human interaction should be more stable. I hope that advances like GLARE will improve overall security at a reduced cost in time and money. This technology is not as visible as lots of new screeners, machines, and National Guardsmen. Politicians like grand public gestures. I'm just afraid that a more subtle approach may be overlooked in the rush to be the first congressman on the block to be the toughest on terror.


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Related Links
o Scientific American
o "Lockerbie Insurance: Hardened Luggage Containers Can Neutralize Explosives"
o Delft University of Technology Structures & Materials Laboratory
o Also by TON

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Developments in Bomb-proofing Luggage | 19 comments (17 topical, 2 editorial, 0 hidden)
Remember, though (4.85 / 7) (#3)
by trhurler on Fri Jan 25, 2002 at 02:51:02 PM EST

The thing about these kinds of technologies(they're not new, even if this application IS,) is that they do not eliminate the threat. They merely require that the bomber use a bigger device. Now, that may make it easier to detect the device, or maybe if the bomber doesn't know how big to make it, his bomb explodes in a relatively harmless failure, but it may also just mean greater certainty that when it goes off, you die.

That last point is worth noting. A bomb resistant container is not a device that reduces the blast. It either contains the blast, or it does not. If it does, then probably nobody gets hurt. If it doesn't, then it gets blown apart. Yes, this reduces the effect somewhat, but not much; the surroundings(ie, the aircraft) are still going to absorb much of the blast.

All this is not to say the containers aren't a good idea. However, without proper bomb screening of luggage, they'll just provide a false sense of security.

'God dammit, your posts make me hard.' --LilDebbie

Carry on and its not the Size that Counts (4.00 / 3) (#4)
by Woundweavr on Fri Jan 25, 2002 at 03:11:10 PM EST

This might help with checked luggage, but it won't do a thing for carry on. Both the 9/11 attack and the attempted "Shoe bombing" would not have been stopped by this because the terrorists were willing to give up their own lives and attacked from within the cabin.

Also, I wonder if these containers would be able to stop some kind of shaped charges. Once there was a puncture in the side of the container, it seems, that it would actually increase the destructive force of the explosive by channeling it along one vector/cone, added to the fact that the explosion would have been in a compressed state in the first place.

Also, just a larger bomb or nerve gas(or anything that would incapacitate the crew) would overwhelm this.

Although this would provide a help, I'm not sure if its the best use of the money. First above and beyond the cost of the actual creation of the containers, they add weight (and thus needs more fuel, which needs even more fuel) to the plane. It doesn't say how many containers for each plane, and for that type of money, you could probably scan most/all of the luggage and hire people to man them.

Re:Carry on and its not the Size that Counts (4.00 / 1) (#9)
by TON on Fri Jan 25, 2002 at 06:34:54 PM EST

This might help with checked luggage, but it won't do a thing for carry on.
That's true, carry-on will always be a separate issue. But, a lot of attention is being devoted to checked baggage right now.

Also, I wonder if these containers would be able to stop some kind of shaped charges.
Now that is a really interesting question. I suppose that could make the whole thing irrelevant. I wonder if we can find out.

Also, just a larger bomb or nerve gas ... would overwhelm this.
I think one advantage of these is that it would force would-be bombers to use larger bombs. This should make the bombs easier and/or cheaper to detect. Alternatively, forcing people to use other modes of attack like nerve gas or more sophisticated explosives, should reduce the number of people able to mount attacks in the first place.

First above and beyond the cost of the actual creation of the containers, they add weight (and thus needs more fuel, which needs even more fuel) to the plane.
Sure, cost is an issue. But look at the cost of maintaining equipment at airports all over the place. Retro-fitting older planes might not make any sense, but new planes could get these. Also, airlines themselves might become interested regardless of regulation. It might reduce insurance costs and lawsuit liability. Would being a "safer" carrier give one airline an advantage over another?

"First, I am born. Then, the trouble begins." -- Schizopolis


[ Parent ]

Use of cash (4.00 / 1) (#11)
by Woundweavr on Fri Jan 25, 2002 at 09:00:07 PM EST

The question isn't so much whether spending money on these things would help both in insurance and actual safety, as whether it would help the most. It might be cheaper/safer to scan for explosives since the airlines have (as everyone does)limited finances and may have to choose.

[ Parent ]
Detachable cargo hold? (2.50 / 2) (#5)
by kostya on Fri Jan 25, 2002 at 03:24:06 PM EST

I don't pretend to understand aeronautics, so perhaps this is just impossible ...

What if you made the cargo area detachable or at least releasable? It would probably require too much reinforcing to be feasible, but why not bomb-proof the cargo area and make it so if the explosion is violent enough it just comes off leaving the rest of the plan mostly intact? Sure, it'd be horrible thing to try and maintain control through, but at least the plane might have a chance at being intact after the explosion.

I'm sure there is a lot of problems with the idea, but perhaps someone could suggest a feasible one. I mean geez, how many times do those spaceships I see on SciFi channel blow a cargo hold out into space--and those are space ships. It must be a helluva lot easier to do it with airplanes.


Veritas otium parit. --Terence
A good idea, but... (2.00 / 1) (#6)
by Hillgiant on Fri Jan 25, 2002 at 03:38:45 PM EST

I believe modular cargo systems have been explored, but there are (at least) two serious drawbacks:
  1. Areodynamics. You would have a continous seam around the edge of the cargo "pod" this will interupt the airstream and seriously affect lift and drag.
  2. Structual rigidity. Just like a convertable car, anytime you remove part of the structure you loose rigidity. The airframe would have to be significantly reinforced to maintain structual rigidity in the event that the "pod" is jetisoned. More structure = more weight = Bad Thing (tm).
We just need to ask ourselves, is the increased weight and funky aerodynamics worth messing with in the name of increased safety. I kinda doubt it.

"It is impossible to say what I mean." -johnny
[ Parent ]

A good idea but... (2.00 / 1) (#7)
by TON on Fri Jan 25, 2002 at 03:46:59 PM EST

I can think of one more problem; falling pods.

Of course, if the plane is blown up, damaged, whatever it may fall on people. I think in some cases, pilots have a chance to avoid populated areas.

The real problem would be with system failure. What if the pod releases for no reason? So-called "failsafe" systems will eventually fail, dropping a large pod in your backyard (if you are lucky) or on your apartment block (if you are not).

It is a neat idea, though. I'd love to see it work.

"First, I am born. Then, the trouble begins." -- Schizopolis


[ Parent ]

Falling pods, RISKS (4.00 / 1) (#8)
by Type-R on Fri Jan 25, 2002 at 04:27:30 PM EST

This seems like a good time to mention the newsgroup comp.risks, which talks about issues like "fail-safe" systems, and people trusting there lives (and fortunes :) to systems that "can't ever break". <MUST RESIST ORACLE REFERENCE>.... :)

[ Parent ]
Military external fuel containers (4.00 / 1) (#10)
by Skippy on Fri Jan 25, 2002 at 07:15:06 PM EST

Have a history of falling off. At one of the bases my father was stationed at one fell off an FB-111 and destroyed a green on the base golf course. There was much ribbing about how the pilot should be required to replace his Volkswagen sized divot. I really don't think external luggage compartments are a good idea.

# I am now finished talking out my ass about things that I am not qualified to discuss. #
[ Parent ]
wrong module (none / 0) (#14)
by Ludwig on Sat Jan 26, 2002 at 04:39:52 PM EST

Doesn't make much sense. If the blast is "violent enough," it'll fuck up the plane before anyone has a chance to release the cargo pod. If it isn't violent enough, there's no reason to lose everyone's luggage.

What might be a better idea would be ejectable passenger modules. Could make boarding easier, too. Have the passengers take their seats in a module, open the fuselage, slide modules in, close plane. In case of emergency, the passenger modules could be jettisoned. Even in an explosion catastrophic enough to preclude active jettison, some modules (the smaller the better) could survive to fall out and parachute to safety.

[ Parent ]

*shrug* (3.00 / 1) (#12)
by valeko on Sat Jan 26, 2002 at 03:34:31 PM EST

Seems to be misguided. Sure, you can bomb-proof luggage especially for planes; then somebody will just carry an "uncertified" piece of luggage onto a bus, train, hovercraft, etc. Focusing narrowly on airline safety seems daft, but on the other hand, you can't require society to tote bomb-proof luggage at all times elsewhere.

"Hey, what's sanity got going for it anyways?" -- infinitera, on matters of the heart

Which makes a "better" headline? (4.00 / 1) (#13)
by physicsgod on Sat Jan 26, 2002 at 04:05:08 PM EST

"Airplane bombed, 300 die!"


"Bus bombed, 30 die!"

Bomb-proofing something on the ground (such as a bus, train, etc.) is a trivial matter: just put armor plating between the cargo section and the passenger compartment. Since you're on the ground wieght isn't a huge concern (it'll impinge on your fuel economy somewhat), and you can let the blast expend itself out the cargo doors. A bus with a huge hole in its side would pull over, maybe tip. A plane with a huge hole in its side would break up.

--- "Those not wearing body armor are hereby advised to keep their arguments on-topic" Schlock Mercenary
[ Parent ]

Your sig (none / 0) (#15)
by Ludwig on Sat Jan 26, 2002 at 04:55:46 PM EST

That quote is commonly attributed to George Orwell, although it's unclear whether he ever said it or not. "Attributed to George Orwell" would be more appropriate than "Unknown."

[ Parent ]
Well, if you want to get technical... (none / 0) (#16)
by valeko on Sat Jan 26, 2002 at 04:57:28 PM EST

Your point is taken. I guess what I really meant to say was that all this obsession rooted in specifically airline safety might be misguided, whereas instead a more distributed approach to increased security measures might be more appropriate.

But to address your point. Given the beureaucratic constraints and security measures that exist now (or before Sept 11 - pick one), simultaneously hijacking four commercial airliners is a feat of profound coordination, planning, and unlimited savagery. It's far easier for a terrorist to get on a bus and do damage, logistically speaking. Remember that deranged Croatian (?) fellow and the Greyhound bus in Tennessee? To re-use your headline analogy:

"Airliner bombed, 300 die!"

"17 buses bombed in ultra-coordinated attack, 800 die!"

All I'm saying is that security measures for non-air transport might be worth a shot too. The whole essence of September 11th was that security services were caught off-guard, since the methods employed were relatively conventional and certainly conceivable. The lesson is that terrorists strike using weak points. Putting all of the resources into airline security neglects other weak points.

Notice to US government security services/law enforcement organs: (including but not limited to Secret Service, FBI, etc): In no way do I condone or engage in the above-mentioned pursuits, including but not limited to: (1) the detonation of an explosive device for any purpose and under any circumstances, (2) the forceful seizure of any transport vehicle, (3) any other activities forbidden by American law.

"Hey, what's sanity got going for it anyways?" -- infinitera, on matters of the heart
[ Parent ]

kinetic energy (none / 0) (#17)
by Tsuraan on Sat Jan 26, 2002 at 06:56:22 PM EST

not exactly specific to bombs, but in general a jet plane makes a far better weapon than, for example, a hovercraft. If you can comandeer a plane, you can possibly bring down a pretty large building, whereas a hovercraft will at most make some people in the lobby die. I've always figured that was the idea behind hijacking a plane rather than a cruise ship or a train. And of course, making it known that the luggage compartment is bomb-proof will make it that much harder to take the plane through a bluff.

[ Parent ]
Re: kinetic energy. (none / 0) (#18)
by valeko on Sat Jan 26, 2002 at 08:33:15 PM EST

My inclusion of the hovercraft was somewhat sarcastic.

As far as mass-destruction, the kinetic energy of a jet plane most certainly triumphs over all other methods. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to point out that the WTC towers collapsed under a very unique set of circumstances. The prevailing1 theory is that the enourmous quantities of jet fuel in the planes chosen perpetuated the fire and melted the steel supports of the buildings. This took very careful calculation and foresight, and I don't think you can extend it as a general rule. I know, however, that all skyscrapers are built with the motive that they are able to withstand the impact of something like a commercial jet.

1I say prevailing because there is a very thorough spectrum of alternative theories.

"Hey, what's sanity got going for it anyways?" -- infinitera, on matters of the heart
[ Parent ]

Bad article head (none / 0) (#19)
by davidduncanscott on Sun Jan 27, 2002 at 01:41:38 AM EST

I think you missed the point, which was easy to do given the header on the article. The idea is not "bomb-proof luggage", but rather "bomb-proof luggage compartments" -- i.e, build up the walls of the "trunk" of the aircraft, so that an explosion will be contained within that portion of the plane.

Yes, you're absolutely right that a terrorist would simply use un-bomb-proof bags. The plan to have each passenger fill out a form including the question:

Purpose of trip:
  • Business
  • Pleasure
  • Mass murder
was found to be unworkable for similar reasons. That's the worst thing about these people -- they're so fiendishly clever! :)

[ Parent ]
Developments in Bomb-proofing Luggage | 19 comments (17 topical, 2 editorial, 0 hidden)
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