Journal of Transportation Security

, Volume 4, Issue 1, pp 73-94

First online:

An evaluation of airport x-ray backscatter units based on image characteristics

  • Leon KaufmanAffiliated withUniversity of California, San Francisco
  • , Joseph W. CarlsonAffiliated withFormerly University of California, San Francisco Email author 

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Little information exists on the performance of x-ray backscatter machines now being deployed through UK, US and other airports. We implement a Monte Carlo simulation using as input what is known about the x-ray spectra used for imaging, device specifications and available images to estimate penetration and exposure to the body from the x-ray beam, and sensitivity to dangerous contraband materials. We show that the body is exposed throughout to the incident x-rays, and that although images can be made at the exposure levels claimed (under 100 nanoGrey per view), detection of contraband can be foiled in these systems. Because front and back views are obtained, low Z materials can only be reliable detected if they are packed outside the sides of the body or with hard edges, while high Z materials are well seen when placed in front or back of the body, but not to the sides. Even if exposure were to be increased significantly, normal anatomy would make a dangerous amount of plastic explosive with tapered edges difficult if not impossible to detect.


X-ray imaging Airport security Compton backscatter Explosive detection Personnel screening