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The University of Southampton

Improving security checks at airports and war zones

Research by psychologists at the University of Southampton could help improve the effectiveness of airport security searches and searching for hidden bombs in war zones such as Afghanistan.

Research challenge

Currently airport security staff monitor X-rays of baggage searching for multiple types of weapons such as guns, knives and explosives. These show up as different colours on the screen - one colour for metal and another colour for explosives. Research by academics at the Centre for Vision and Cognition (CVC) at the University of Southampton has been investigating the effect of searching for two different objects at the same time.


Research into the way airport security staff view X-ray images of passengers' baggage began shortly before the 9/11 attacks in the United States in 2001. The Ministry of Defence's Counter Terrorism Centre was interested in the results of this research to improve the effectiveness of visual searches for Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) by troops in Afghanistan. IEDs are the major cause of casualties in combat zones.

Our solution

Psychology is a crucial component in the effectiveness of visual searches for security threats in the luggage of air travellers and for hidden bombs in combat zones such as Afghanistan.

Research by CVC academics used analytical techniques to assess why some visual searches are more reliable than others. They measured the eye movements of participants searching for targets from airport baggage screening and showed that searching for two different colours simultaneously (as is the case in baggage screening) is less accurate than carrying out two separate searches.

Their findings recommended that security screening could be more effective if the search was split across screeners so that some screeners specialise in looking for metal weapons and others looked for explosives.

The team, in collaboration with the Defence Science Technology Laboratory (Dstl), have also been analysing the eye-tracking data of individuals searching for the signs of IEDs.

What was the impact?

The research findings have been used to inform the US Department of Homeland Security's aviation security research and policy, and are currently being used on a number of projects in relation to anti-terrorism and defence strategies employed by the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

They have also been used to examine novel training regimes in threat detection for British troops in Afghanistan. The MoD is also drawing on Southampton's research to develop novel training regimes for the identification of threats in public spaces such as conference centres.

The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) has awarded £550,000 funding to the team to explore the way overlapping transparent objects are viewed by baggage scanners and whether 3-D depictions of objects can help the search for potential security threats.

Improving security at airports and in war zones
Security at airports

Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition 2011

BBC coverage of the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition 2011

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List of all staff members in
Staff MemberPrimary Position
Hayward GodwinAssociate Professor
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