With a CV that includes the roles of chief security advisor to the UK Government and head of security for the athletes’ village during the London 2012 Olympics, Stephen Cooper is well versed in public safety.

Cooper cites the London bombings of 7 July 2005 – in which four suicide bombers with rucksacks full of explosives coordinated attacks in the heart of the capital, killing 52 people – as a watershed moment for his sector.

As has been evidenced in further atrocities – the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing and 2015 Paris attacks being just a couple of examples – busy public spaces, such as city centres and stadiums, represent potential targets for terrorists. The higher the density of people, the greater the risk, goes the rule of thumb.

Naturally, by handling thousands of people daily, airports are not immune to such threats. In March 2016, two suicide bombers carrying explosives in suitcases attacked a departure hall at Brussels Airport, killing 22 people.

The risks are higher landside than they are airside, whereby passengers have already cleared security.

In 2017, Cooper became director of operational solutions and integration at APSTEC Systems, whose flagship product is the Human Security Radar (HSR), a fully automatic walk-through system that screens people in real time for hidden explosive threats and firearms.

As Cooper (made an OBE in 2001 for his services to security) explains below, the technology has caught the eye of several international airports, and the wider aviation industry. In November, Turkey’s Esenboga International Airport signed up, after a successful trial period, in turn brought about the Turkish State Airports Authority’s decision to ramp up security following terrorist attacks on Ataturk Airport in 2016.

Ross Davies: Could you run me through how Human Security Radar works?

Stephen Cooper: Sure. It’s widely applicable system, which, aside from airports, has also been deployed at football clubs, stadiums and high-end retail – basically anywhere where there’s a high number of people, and where you need a degree of assurance.

There are some excellent other technologies out there, but our main advantage is that HSR is able to scan up to 10,000 people an hour, as opposed to a thousand or so. It is also able to see explosive threats in body-worn bags and rucksacks.

The objective here is to take high numbers of people through at any one time, and not to disrupt them. People want security at airports, but they don’t want lots of disruption.

Also, we are looking for the principal threat. That means our focus is really on the airport itself, in areas such as the departures terminal – as opposed to looking for small quantities of explosive material that might be catastrophic on an aircraft at 32,000 feet.

RD: So we’re talking landside security rather than airside?

SC: Yes, precisely. HSR is really deployable at the perimeter of the landside of the terminal – so arrivals and departures. It’s aimed at the preservation of life in the most crowded places, but infrastructure damage to airports is also a major issue for us as well.

It’s a big challenge, particularly in the context of suicide terrorism. In the UK, obviously in the past we had the threats waged by the Provisional IRA – such as devices left at airports, leading to public awareness campaigns around not leaving unattended baggage and more sniffer dogs on site. For a long time that appeared to be a proportionate approach.

The suicide terrorism attacks of the mid-2000s, such as 7/7, changed all that. That’s when we started to see more armed police officers, more security, facial recognition and other biometric identification systems.

RD: What kind of appetite are we seeing from airports for the likes of HSR?

SC: They are very interested in this technology. Obviously, we had a successful outcome with Esenboga International Airport, and we’ve also conducted two other successful pilots in Europe and the Middle East. We’re currently conducting commercial negotiations with those airports.

I also met recently with Airports Council International, who are very interested in this type of screening.

RD: And how easy is it to integrate this technology, particularly at larger airports?

SC: Good question. We are currently talking with Paris Aéroport, which has 18 entrances over three levels. So, for them, it’s about trying to find a proportionate approach to this this. That might be something along the lines of installing the equipment, operating or monitoring it centrally, and then escalating the response in the face of an increased threat.

What we are seeing these airports do at the moment is work out how they can effectively integrate these types of technologies in a cost-effective way. But speaking frankly, when you look at the outlay of your average airport, the cost of this stuff in a capital sense is tiny. It also only requires a handful of people to deal with thousands of people per hour.

RD: But security surely isn’t simply a case of investing in the best technology. Does vigilance boil down to much more, such as airport security teams working more closely with local law enforcement agencies?

SC: Yes, the technology is just one component of it. There is no one-size-fits-all or silver bullet here. Complimentary things like behavioural detection, CCTV armed response, or having some kind of armed response that can respond in a timely fashion are all part of the mix. Ideally, airports need to have a layered, integrated security model.

RD: Do you think passengers prefer this kind of invisible technology rather than the sight of armed security officers patrolling the floor?

SC: Definitely. With this technology, you are really trying to achieve two things. You want to deter the attackers while at the same time reassuring the passengers.

If attackers know that there is a really strong screening technology in use at the airport, it is ultimately going to deter them. It’s about the look and feel of the technology. If it’s anything that looks like traditional search and screening, it’s not going to be reassuring for passengers – and it’s also massively expensive.  

Passengers absolutely want a level of security to give them confidence, and they want it to be not too impactful or disruptive – they don’t want to be opening their bags and emptying their pockets every five minutes. This needs to be a good user experience – otherwise it doesn’t work.