Along with firearms, knives, explosives, and more rarely, CBRN-related substances and components, the prime illegal materials smuggled through airports are narcotics.

There are too many cases of airport drugs seizures to document. So to pick just two recent cases, in October 2017 a gang smuggled more than 100 kg of cocaine worth £10 million through Heathrow Airport. In April 2016 one of the biggest haul heroin halls ever seized – £26 million worth – was seized at Manchester Airport by the UK National Crime Agency working with Border Force officers. It was stashed inside a commercial oven imported from Iran.

Bizarre cases abound: in 2014 a man tried to pass off cocaine contained in chocolate-chip cookies at Newark International; another stuffed 3 kg of the white powder into goat meat chunks and tried to bring it into New York; another tried to pass drugs in bags of custard mix through JFK.

A daunting task

Border Forces seize much larger quantities of drugs, per seizure, than police forces. On a typical day (in 2016), out of a total of 1,069,266 incoming passengers processed through US borders – of which 326,723 arrived at airports – US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) seized 7,910 pounds (over 3,000 kg) of drugs. A staggering 2.14 million pounds (at least 1 million kg) of narcotics were seized by US border patrol agents on both land and air routes in FY 2016. Marijuana is the main drug seized, followed by cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, and of noted increase, a drug many times more powerful and dangerous than heroin and used in anaesthesia, fentanyl – as well as synthetic cathinones, dubbed ‘bath salts’.

To focus on airports and on narcotics detection in particular, the size of the task facing the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA), CBP, and all equivalent customs and security agencies scanning air passengers around the world increases each year. In the US alone, in 2014 the TSA screened nearly 653 million airline passengers – over 14 million more than 2013. During FY17, aircrews operating within CBP’s Air and Marine Operations (AMO) contributed to 155 seizures or disruption of over 209,300 pounds of cocaine.

Detection at airports

Systems to detect narcotics are often the same machines that detect explosives and CBRN on passengers and in luggage. Not only passengers and their luggage but also cargo must be scanned for illegal narcotics.

The science of both trace explosives and narcotics detection is well established and is based on trace: that when chemical substances are handled, minute traces will remain after hands are washed and can be transferred to mobile phones, laptops, keyboards, laptop bags and baggage items. Most systems work by passive sampling by swabbing hands or suitcases and then running the sample through a chemical detector, typically an ion mobility spectrometer.

The Bruker DE-tector is a classic example of a bench-top system that detects traces of both drugs (narcotics) and explosives through swab and direct vapour sampling. It uses a non-radioactive high-energy photo ionization source used in combination with air passenger security screening and hand baggage X-ray systems.

Samples are taken from a suspect’s personal property with a reusable polymer-based glass-fibre reinforced swab, which is inserted into the detection instrument. The measurement is made by light indicators: Green means clear; red indicates a positive. And as a ‘go-anywhere’ detector for both trace drugs and explosives, the Bruker RoadRunner battery-portable hand-held version weighs less than 3.5 kg

The L3 Security & Detection Systems high-resolution ion mobility spectrometer also uses a non-radioactive ionization detection source, which eliminates the planning, licensing, transport, leak test, and disposal issues associated with radioactive materials. It boasts rapid clear-down – the time to reset after a sample – at just a few seconds, even after the detection of a threat substance.

Trace detection of both explosives and narcotics takes place within one device. The B220™ Desktop Trace Detector provides audio and visual alarm indications and substance identification on an integrated high-resolution colour touchscreen. Authorized users can also access spectrogram display and analysis, administrative, and diagnostic tools through the easy-to-use interface – vital for passing through thousands of passengers a day.

In the forefront of table-top airport screening technology for narcotics and precursors – along with toxic industrial chemicals, explosives and precursors, chemical warfare agents and flammable and hazardous materials – is Spatially Offset Raman Spectroscopy (SORS) technology. This was pioneered for the Insight range of detection systems by Agilent Technologies (formerly Cobalt Light Systems). Insight can see through containers/barriers, including non-metallic, coloured, opaque or clear plastics, glass and paper. A substantial advantage is identifying materials without opening or disturbing the container. Several hundred units are deployed at airports, including eight of the main ten European hubs.

Dogs for detection

While wand-like vapour detectors are more mobile, unless the detector scans immediately above it, the chemical signature of a bomb-making ingredient or narcotic may not be detected. Sniffer dogs at airports are therefore a long-established method to sniff passengers and hand luggage at security checkpoints as well as on the aircraft. With an olfactory system 150,000 times more powerful than a human’s, sniffer dogs are trained to detect illegal odours even when tightly sealed or deeply hidden.

The drawbacks are the dogs can tire and the time needed to train and re-train them. In 2016 an ‘active sniffing’ device based on a Labrador’s nose was developed at the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which is claimed to increase vapour detection sixteen times more than current detectors at airports. Using a 3-D printer, NIST replicated the external features of a Labrador retriever’s nose. To replicate canine air sampling, researchers moved air through the artificial nose at the same rate that a dog inhales and exhales. Using a technique widely used in aeronautical engineering to view the flow of air around objects—and high-speed video – the team confirmed their imitation nose could sniff much like a sniffer dog.

Questions also arise regarding passengers taking prescription medications through airports. These can be carried in 100 ml or smaller containers in the standard-issue zip-top plastic bag used to present other liquids and gels. Larger containers or bottles must be packed separately in a carry-on bag. And passengers must check which drugs are prohibited and permissible quantities in their country of destination.