X-ray scanners have been used extensively by the aviation industry for more than 20 years to screen luggage and cargo for weapons or explosives. However, in reality, there is one notable exception; the trolleys containing inflight cabin supplies, such as food and drink, are not X-ray scanned before they go onboard, and pose a significant risk – the weak link in the aviation security chain. There have been many incidents worldwide of devices getting onto a plane through aircraft trolleys or hold cargo, with repercussions ranging from minor disruption to the tragic loss of life.

Counting down to take-off

At the moment, all aircraft trolley checks are performed entirely manually, and larger airports require a team of several full-time staff to work around the clock doing just that. Bearing in mind that around 2,500 flights leave Heathrow airport every day, checking trolleys by hand is a huge bottleneck to getting planes off the ground. A manual trolley search is also very subjective – it varies from person to person, company to company, and airport to airport – and inconsistency between inspectors poses a huge potential problem for security.

In light of this, the Department for Transport (DfT) has indicated that it will shortly be introducing new regulations – produced in association with the Civic Aviation Authority (CAA) – for the screening of inflight supplies. While the details are not yet known, the general expectation in the industry is that the recommendations will promote the use of technology for the screening process, and this change is likely to spark interest in devices that scan aircraft trolleys automatically. The race will then be on for manufacturers to design effective scanners as quickly as possible in order to meet the new security standards.

A bespoke product for a niche market

Todd Research is a truly innovative company, going right back to 1950 when it began manufacturing medical X-ray instruments, and the seventies when it was the first company to respond to the government’s call for an X-ray scanner that would detect a letter bomb. Now, 52 years later, it is again the first to deliver a bespoke solution to a very specific challenge, once more applying its expertise outside of its usual remit.

Todd Research’s new X-ray scanner is specifically designed for screening inflight supplies, with a unique U-shaped detector that encapsulates the whole trolley as it goes through, and generates a clear and detailed simulated 3D image. It takes just 20 seconds to scan a trolley, compared to an average of two and a half minutes to search each one by hand. For long haul flights that need upwards of 150 trolleys, this means screening could take just 50 minutes, rather than the several hours it would take to check that many trolleys manually.  Existing cargo-scanning machines are simply far too big for this purpose. They often have lead curtains on the front that knock the trolleys over as they are pushed through, whereas the new system has automatic doors that open and close for each trolley, making the whole process smooth and contactless.

Flying high

This unique new device aims to improve security by standardising trolley screening across the aviation industry, and could also save airlines and caterers literally millions of pounds a year. X-ray trolley scanning is clearly a win-win for everyone, and the demand is simply enormous. New security rules for inflight supplies are coming, and Todd Research is confident that its X-ray scanner will meet the requirements with flying colours.