Don't take your science fair project to the airport

Last week it was Don’t try nuclear energy experiments at home. This week it’s Altoid tins with dangerous electronics and alligator clips.

From Oregon Live: Science project closes Omaha airport terminal

Aug. 3, 2011, 3:51 p.m. PDT
Associated Press

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — An Oregon college student’s science project forced the evacuation and shutdown of a terminal at Eppley Airfield in Omaha on Wednesday. The student had been participating in a science fair at Creighton University in Omaha, FBI spokeswoman Sandra Breault said.

“The device had a legitimate purpose and was harmless but had a suspicious appearance, which triggered an appropriate response by TSA and law enforcement,” Breault said.

So what was in it? An entry in the AAPT (American Association of Physics Tecahers) apparatus competition. Have a look at the gadget as reported in the TSA blog:

Weird Science: Traveling With Homemade Gadgets

Device Found At Omaha Checkpoint
TSA official evidence photo

You may have heard in the news recently about how a college student unintentionally closed down a TSA checkpoint with his science project. He had shipped it to Omaha, but decided to travel with it on his departure. Let’s be clear, it was completely innocent. He had no way of knowing his improvised mint tin would look like an improvised explosive device (IED) on our X-ray monitor. Most people wouldn’t realize it and the purpose of this post is to inform folks that homemade gadgets (however cool they may be) can look like improvised explosive devices to our officers on the X-ray monitors. You may remember a blog post from Nico about homemade gadgets from back in 2009. The devices we’re looking for don’t look like the Wile E. Coyote Acme bomb, they are smaller these days and much harder to find.

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August 9, 2011 12:29 am

I can understand a metal box with battery and wires, etc, looking suspicious, but THAT IS QUITE DIFFERENT FROM BOOBS AND JUNK, so far as I know!

charles nelson
August 9, 2011 12:34 am

And these are the people meant to be protecting us!

August 9, 2011 12:38 am

The TSA’s training video is an episode of the A-team where they dismantle a bomb that looks just like that! If they were in any way competent they would just 1) Ask the guy about it 2) Get a dog to sniff it and 3) put it through a scanner. Take five minutes. But noo, this is the TSA. They have to flex their power just for the sake of it in ways that are totally useless for actually fighting terror.
One more reason to decentralise transport security, get rid of the TSA, and let firms compete on the basis of competence. Competition will outperform government run monopolies every time.

August 9, 2011 1:00 am

What is it?

August 9, 2011 1:06 am

Don’t wrap your alarm clock cord around several sticks of Sculpey, either.

August 9, 2011 1:10 am

Note to TSA:
Look for the explosive, not the electronics.
Also try talking to the kid before panicking.

August 9, 2011 1:29 am

So get the monkey on the X-ray machine to call someone with two functioning neurones to take the passenger aside, get the device out, look at it, see it’s OK and resume activities.
Like all airport “security” it has far more to do with establishing the dominance of “The Authorities” over the peons than actually preventing an outrage. I suspect the UK government is about to learn the lesson about p*ssing-off the ordinary people.

Tony Mach
August 9, 2011 1:41 am

Improvised CFL lamp…

August 9, 2011 2:04 am

I’m sorry, I think the TSA response was is appropriate. After seening the picture above I personally would have gone ballistic knowing it was travelling on a plane with me until I had examined it in detail. If this sort of “innocent” activity is permitted others will take advantage.

August 9, 2011 2:14 am

It’d be nice to know just what this gadget is supposed to do (apart from giving our Heimatsicherheitsdienst clowns cause to fibrillate and freak out).

August 9, 2011 2:29 am

Should of stuffed it down his under pants.

August 9, 2011 2:58 am

I give the TSA a pass and a star for this one.

August 9, 2011 3:09 am

As much as I resent the theatrical but ineffectual shows of airport security that regularly inconvenience me for no actual benefit, that is one suspicious-looking object that deserved to set off the alarms. If something like that didn’t cause the building to be evacuated you’d have to wonder what it would take. The only story here is a non-story: college students can be really stupid. Well, duh?!

August 9, 2011 3:19 am

New terrorist approach: cause massive flight delays with your homemade wire knots.

August 9, 2011 3:32 am

That’s great… did not one of the reporters covering this bother to ask what the device actually is?
August 9, 2011 4:20 am

Simple question, what is it?

Ed Moran
August 9, 2011 4:27 am

I hate travelling by plane because of the often OTT offensive and illogical security but even I would have hit the panic button on seeing that!

dave ward
August 9, 2011 4:29 am

I’m reminded of the local amateur radio club meetings I used to attend many years ago. One evening a regular (who specialised in low power QRP working) turned up with a complete station in his jacket pockets. Two tobacco tins housed the transmitter & matching unit, some wire, a Morse key and 9 volt dry battery completed the setup. Within a few minutes he had “loaded up” the heating system and was working several contacts on 80 metres. I wonder how he would get on trying to travel anywhere these days….
I visited Australia twice in the 80’s and, since shortwave listening was part of the reason, I carried a Sony portable along with a small cassette recorder and selection of batteries, power supply, charger and a few basic tools. Amazingly I was never stopped or questioned once!

Paul Westhaver
August 9, 2011 4:33 am

Years ago I traveled with chunks of lead chloride (100% radio-opaque) in my carry-on. I used to design batteries…green batteries too BTW. I always got pulled aside and interrogated. I suppose nowadays it is much worse.
Now I travel with custom medical devices with lotza of electronics and batteries and pistol shapes. Heck I get searched even when I check my luggage!
The answer is to DRIVE your own car, skype, fed ex. I have other theories of how to prevent terrorism on planes but that is outside the scope of this blog.
BTW… it used to be that I would design systems with Lithium batteries for use on military aircraft. Anything with Lithium batteries would get rejected by pilots for fear that that the battery would short and become a flare.
I remind all of you that every cell phone has a lithium battery pack, which has tremendous energy density.

August 9, 2011 5:01 am

I had to bring a dozen accelerometers with me to the US (from Australia) for testing a locomotive bogie (truck) in Erie, PA. The accelerometers had magnetic bases so I mounted them on a steel rule; each the approximate size and shape of a very large bullet – or perhaps a 20 mm cannon shell – all lined up on the steel rule in a neat row and packed away in the check through bag. I could imagine what it looked like in the X-ray image.
When the bag came out of the shute in LAX I noticed it had a plain, light blue tag attached to the handle. A nice friendly, innocent light blue. Not orange. Not red. I looked around; none of the other bags had a light blue tag. So I bent down, discreetly took it off and put it in my pocket.,, and sailed through the customs check unmolested.

August 9, 2011 5:18 am

What’s wrong with kids these days? They should know that bringing an alligator on an airplane is just asking for trouble.
OTOH, shouldn’t the organizers of the AAPT (American Association of Physics Tecahers [sic]) apparatus competition include a notice to entrants that reads something like “Don’t even think of getting your apparatus past airport security!”

Dave Springer
August 9, 2011 5:20 am

Well isn’t that just precious.

August 9, 2011 5:39 am

“The device had a legitimate purpose and was harmless but had a suspicious appearance, which triggered an appropriate response by TSA and law enforcement,” Breault said.
Hmm, shouldn’t that have been, “… which triggered the usual inappropriate response by TSA and law enforcement”?

August 9, 2011 5:52 am

He had no way of knowing his improvised mint tin would look like an improvised explosive device (IED) on our X-ray monitor.

Huh? It’s common sense to any but the most clueless to think it would look suspicious. If TSA is making you throw away water bottles and containers of shampoo before boarding a plane, isn’t it obvious they would baulk at a metal tin with wires and a battery?

August 9, 2011 6:09 am

Sooooo…. what does it actually do, aside from terrifying TSA agents?

August 9, 2011 6:13 am

An entry in the AAPT (American Association of Physics Tecahers) apparatus competition.

Are ‘tecahers’ those people working at ‘shcools’> 😉

August 9, 2011 6:44 am

Suspicion, I understand. Evacuation? Some very simple questions would have saved an awful lot of people an awful lot of time, and an awful lot of expense. Ask the Israelis how it’s done.
Next time, put it in a 1 qt. baggie, divided into 3oz components, each labeled shampoo, toothpaste, deodorant, ..etc.

August 9, 2011 7:42 am

Second place! A “Light Absorption and Pulse Oximetry.” Measures levels of methemoglobin?

August 9, 2011 7:46 am

Sooo, I shouldn’t travel with my Altoid can QRP rig in my pocket then? Rats, and the closest thing to an explosive in it is the battery…. /sarc
Do not get me started on my feelings about the TSA.

August 9, 2011 7:51 am

I have an idea, pull the battery out and go about your business.

August 9, 2011 8:01 am

If it looks like a bomb in carry-on, why doesn’t it look like a bomb in luggage??
Don’t y’all feel so much safer now that you know the bomb has to be in the baggage compartment??

Jeff Mitchell
August 9, 2011 8:20 am

Being a reptile enthusiast during the 80s, I once brought a three foot gopher snake and a western spiny lizard on board a plane in my brief case. I wanted to see what they looked like on the x-ray scanner. They looked transparent like rubber toys. Nobody cared, and I boarded the plane without a hitch. I don’t think that would pass inspection these days.
My thought back then was if I could get a gopher snake on board, I could also bring a deadly snake as a weapon and that security was actually pretty superficial. So I’m guessing they’ve improved since then, but still it smacks more of making a show of security than real security.

August 9, 2011 8:28 am

To those of you who think the TSA overreacted: I’m glad you are not working airport security.

August 9, 2011 8:42 am

As much as I resent the theatrical but ineffectual shows of airport security that regularly inconvenience me for no actual benefit, that is one suspicious-looking object that deserved to set off the alarms. If something like that didn’t cause the building to be evacuated you’d have to wonder what it would take.
If they found it, why evacuate the building? Setting off alarms and triggering a closer inspection is one thing, but there can be any number of things they might think are “suspicious”.. that doesn’t mean that they should close down airports for no reason.
Reminds me of back in the day when I was travelling with a big old 5 1/4″ hard drive… back before most people had hard drives. Most airports passed it through. One podunk airport got worried and demanded that I open it. I explained that it can’t be opened without ruining it. After some hemming and hawing they called over a manager who recognized it for what it was and I was on my way.
If I were to travel with a hard drive today, would that cause them to shut down the airport? Perhaps they’d be rightly concerned with allowing me on a plane with it and force me to ship it to my destination, but lets not over-react. See, investigate, decide on a plan of action. Barring finding actual weaponry or bona-fide bomb residue, there’s no reason to inconvenience thousands of passengers.

Alan Bates
August 9, 2011 8:46 am

For those wanting to know what it really was, try following up the links in the story. There is one entry that has some familiar-looking components.

Pete of Perth
August 9, 2011 8:46 am

In 1982 our family was posted to Seattle from Australia. My Dad was in the Australian Navy posted to Honeywell to help oversea the Mulloka sonar contract. We flew from Sydney via Tahiti to LA on QANTAS with my Father’s naval ceremonial sword in the cabin. After staying a few days in LA, we went to the airport to fly to Seattle. On the way to the check-in counter with the sword amongst the bags, a security guard politely told us that it had to be checked into baggage.Those were the carefree days.
I enjoyed my stay in Seattle but alas I haven’t been back to the States since – waiting for the kids to leave home.

Jeff Norris
August 9, 2011 8:53 am

The device is a Pulse Oximetry which is used to asses blood oxygen levels.

August 9, 2011 9:49 am

Richard111 says: “I’m sorry, I think the TSA response was is appropriate. After seening the picture above I personally would have gone ballistic knowing it was travelling on a plane with me until I had examined it in detail. If this sort of “innocent” activity is permitted others will take advantage.”
Absolutely. Any perceived disconnect between “common sense” and this alleged “overreaction” says more about living in denial of our sick world than about TSA response.

August 9, 2011 9:57 am

Surprising how efficient they are at bursting urine bags, harrassing invalids, and busting school children (NOW that is an Emily Latella!), but so far, the only terrorists that have been captured have been by passengers and crew of the planes since 9-11.
We have forfeited our freedom for harrassment that does not work. Except as harrassment.

Richard Keen
August 9, 2011 11:09 am

Back in ’82 I carried a Maasai spear with me onto the flight from Nairobi to New York. I probably looked like I had no idea how to use it properly. I was wearing removeable tooth braces at the time, and the guys at the gate were interested and amused by that.
But back to the AAPT conference, there is a climate connection to this story. Guess who the keynote speaker was…
College Park, Maryland, April 7, 2011—James E. Hansen, is the 2011 recipient of the Klopsteg Memorial Award from the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT). Hansen will receive the award on August 3 at the 2011 AAPT Summer Meeting in Omaha, Nebraska. The theme of the meeting will be communicating with the public about physics and Hansen’s work on global climate change has been an exemplar in this area.
(Previous recipients include 2008 Michio Kaku, City University of New York, New York, NY, whose lucid communication of the physics of El Nina (sic), red radiation, and roach hotels is classic ( ).
Hansen treated the kids to one of his soft-spoken rants, by the title of…
“Halting Human-Made Climate Change: The Case for Young People and Nature
“Humans are now the dominant force driving climate change. The nature of the climate system — its “inertia” and “tipping points” – makes the matter urgent. Business-as-usual would hand our children a situation out of their control – continually shifting shorelines, as many as half of all species committed to extinction, increasing climate extremes with greater floods, droughts, fires and stronger storms. Government policies are nearly useless. The intergenerational injustice raises a profound moral issue, as greenwashing governments feign ignorance of the actual situation and the fecklessness of their policies. The tragedy is that a simple honest solution is possible — one that stimulates the economy, phases out fossil fuel addiction, and stabilizes climate — but it requires putting the public’s interest above that of special financial interests. Adults must unite with young people in a campaign to force well-oiled coal-fired governments, through legal remedies and democratic processes, to tell the truth and do their job.”
Tipping points – extremes – injustice – addiction – unite – tell the truth….
Yep, looks like he’s going to communicate some fundamental physics!

August 9, 2011 11:57 am

I have seen IED’s (I was in the military) and these looks just like them. I have to side with TSA for this one (who I usually hate) except that it was completely unnecessary to shut down the entire airport. People uverestimate the power of explosives way to much. Something I’m sure they got from movies.

August 9, 2011 1:13 pm

Just in case no one has said it yet: This guy had any inconvenience he suffered coming. Someone should have tased him just on general principles. TSA agents aren’t trained explosives experts or even law enforcement. They’re trained lookers. Stop first, ask questions later. He could even have taken the preemptive step of going straight to TSA and saying something like “Hey, I’ve got this science fair project. It’s going to look pretty odd on your equipment. Let’s get some law and some supervision over here so everyone feels good about it”. But NOOOOOOOO. Gotta make a fuss……. shame on him.

August 9, 2011 1:45 pm

For all those uttering “yup-yup!” endorsements of our Heimatsicherheitsdienst goons in the TSA, I would ask that they please consider the following:
Since 11 September 2001, precisely how many terrorists have tried to get on airliners with bombs or weapons in their carry-on bags?
Let’s see, we’ve got one guy who built explosives into his shoes, another who came aboard with PETN underpants, and….
Well, nobody.
Given the absolute certainty that all carry-on stuff is going to be thoroughly searched, just what gives any “security”-fixated neurotic sucker to conjure that the incompetent clowns of the TSA are ever going to find anything genuinely dangerous in any random passenger’s carry-on baggage?
Yeah, that gadget sure looked like an IED.
Except, of course, it wasn’t concealed in any way at all.
Some “terrorist.”

August 9, 2011 1:58 pm

Aaron Schnelle says:
August 9, 2011 at 1:13 pm

Sorry Aaron, I firmly disagree. As I stated, the TSA has done NOTHING other than harrass law abiding citizens and deprive all of us of our rights. EVERY plot that has been thwarted has been thwarted after the perps got past the gropers.

August 9, 2011 4:20 pm

I was asked a few years ago to take a electrical-experiment kit to India for a friend’s son there. I couldn’t accommodate the box so I packed the contents in my carry-on. The TSA asked what it was and I said “wires.” Much consternation later they let me go. But that’s understandable compared to the time that the TSA identified all the zippers on the pockets of my bag as “wires.”
Ok, it’s not as amusing as the Middle East customs agent who was told a bag contained koozies but heard it as “Uzis.”

Stephen Brown
August 9, 2011 4:57 pm

In the late 70s I took a basic Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) course run by the Police Force in which I was serving. I remember well a demonstration given by the head of the EOD in which he demonstrated how to take an IED onto an aeroplane.
His watch was the timer and the power source (quartz watches have batteries), his tie-pin was the micro-detonator, his shoe-laces contained the requisite wiring and he produced a sufficient quantity of C4 (no, not from an internal source) to blow a 6′ by 6′ hole in the fuselage of any airliner when detonated in a toilet on the plane. He had taken the self-same apparatus to our international airport and, on a test of the security personnel, had affirmed that he was, indeed, carrying a viable IED. No-one could find it.
Modern chemical sniffers might have detected the C4 he was carrying but those sniffers would certainly miss a condom-clad quantity carried internally.
As the head of the EOD stated, airport security is there to reassure the public and to deter the extremely rare wannabee bombers. Airport security simply cannot stop a well trained and dedicated terrorist because the security personnel are amateurs while the suicide bomber has been very carefully prepared psychologically and trained professionally to maximise the probability of success. .
No self-respecting bomber would ever carry anything so indiscreet as real batteries and real wires!

Aaron edwards
August 9, 2011 7:11 pm

Careful, careful… steady hand now Mr. TSA agent, cut the green wire first then the red wire, or is it the other way round?

Alex Heyworth
August 10, 2011 8:03 pm

So, can anyone provide a rational explanation why we are obsessed with security on planes, but don’t care in the least about security on trains and buses?

August 10, 2011 9:36 pm

This is an example of what Bruce Schneier calls Security Theater.

August 11, 2011 5:20 am

Alex Heyworth says:
August 10, 2011 at 8:03 pm
So, can anyone provide a rational explanation why we are obsessed with security on planes, but don’t care in the least about security on trains and buses?


William Mason
August 11, 2011 10:54 am

For once I can chime in from an educated position. I was EOD in the army and one of the things we practiced very often was IEDs. We would make practice devices which we would trade off and try to dismantle other people’s devices without setting them off. It was kind of fun when it came to practice but the concept in real life is scary to the extreme. The thing about IEDs is you don’t know how the other person put it together. There is no guide. You have to figure it out and you only get one chance at being right. Get it wrong and you go out in a pink mist. To help accomplish this we would x-ray the device and try to get a feel for what was inside and where it was. I have looked at the picture and I can tell you for certain that describing the device in this story as suspicious is a very large understatement. The way the wires go into that block would be the exact same way electric blasting caps would be inserted into explosives and the tin would look typical for an electronic device for initiating them. On x-ray this device would appear exactly like a fully loaded IED primed and ready to go. Personally I would have done the exact same thing as the TSA when it came to the evacuation. I probably would not have taken the device apart manually though. Something that looks that much like an IED gets a water shot from a 50 cal de-armer. That’s a device that literally rips the suspected IED into tiny little pieces so fast the blasting caps don’t have time to function. That is one differences between the military EOD and the civilian EOD. The civilian EOD wants to keep the evidence. We wanted to live to see tomorrow. I don’t think they did wrong on this one. If they erred on the other side and were wrong the results would have been catastrophic. With a device like that you can’t take those kinds of chances.

August 11, 2011 3:09 pm

We are more particular on security on planes because the 9-1-1 attack is haunting us.

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