Controversial TSA Airport Body Scan Tech Reborn as Possible Skin Cancer Detector

A new “camera” that uses science similar to that of TSA scans, could detect everything from defects in thermal insulating foam to cancerous lesions.

mmwave scan

Could that much-derided TSA body scan technology lead to a medical breakthrough we can all celebrate?


Millimeter-wave tech is controversial in its anti-terrorist, anti-privacy use in body scanners at airports, but a new “camera” that uses similar science could detect invisible concrete cancer damage in buildings, and skin cancer too.

The camera is the product of research by Dr. Reza Zoughi at Missouri University of Science and Technology, and it uses millimeter wave and microwave radio signals to peek inside the structure of an object in front of the sensors–in a very similar way to some of the machines that are used by the TSA to peep inside your clothing at airports in a hunt for concealed weapons. It’s clever enough to create real-time synthetic aperture (digitally “focused”) images in real time, at up to 30 images per second. It’s also battery powered and portable, using a laptop for the display so it can be deployed at will.

The technology has an almost unlimited number of uses–Zoughi notes it could be used to detect defects in thermal insulating foam (something NASA could really have benefited from with the recent foam woes before Discovery’s launch), aerospace materials–where minute structural defects can quickly evolve to cause catastrophic damage–and even to look at architectural concrete for defects like concrete cancer. It could also benefit homeowners hunting for termite damage. Medical uses could even identify cancerous skin lesions.

The best bit about the tech, which also goes for airport body scans, is that unlike X-ray systems it’s non-ionizing and thus doesn’t damage sensitive materials or soft tissues–all it may do is gently heat the targets, though the team notes the camera is so sensitive it can operate at a very low power level (which is also why it can be battery-powered).

In the future, the tech will be tweaked to operate more like a handheld video camera, which could enable covert security uses, and may even be advanced to create real-time 3-D imagery. So, remember that scene from Total Recall? Yup–it may one day be possible in real life.


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