Securing the Friendly Skies
A plane carrying hundreds of passengers crashes into the Mediterranean Sea, most likely due to an undetected bomb placed on board. An unsecured scrap of metal falls from an aircraft’s body and later causes a Concorde jet to catch fire and crash. These are real-life scenarios that Mircea Tudor’s award-winning scanning technology for commercial airplanes, the TUDOR TECH AERIA, is intended to avoid.
Mr. Tudor grew up in a small village in Romania and worked alongside his older brother in a TV repair workshop where his interest in electronics quickly evolved into his life’s pursuit. At age 16, he built his own oscilloscope, [an instrument used to display and analyze the waveform of electronic signals] because he could not afford to buy one. Later, while working for Romania’s national railway company during the communist era under Nicolae Ceausescu, Mr. Tudor was forced to redesign defective parts for complex equipment systems on his own, as the Romanian economy was shut off from the Western world and he could not obtain the original replacement parts. It was a two-year crash course that provided the foundation for Mr. Tudor to begin designing his own more complex technology solutions.
In 1994 he founded MBTelecom Ltd., where he created large-scale security systems for border-crossing points including scanning technology for cars and trucks. Mr. Tudor spent years working on a way to scan large objects such as aircraft, and by 2013 he had a fully operational prototype. The next year, he founded Tudor Scan Tech, the parent company of MBTelecom, and today he is in negotiations with a U.S. company to sell his aviation scanning technology on a global scale. The TUDOR TECH AERIA won the 2013 Grand Prix at the International Exhibition of Inventions at Geneva—the first time in the competition’s history that the same competitor had received the award twice (Mr. Tudor also won the award in 2009 for his robotic mobile scanning solution for trucks).
Mr. Tudor spoke with Innovator Insights about how the technology works, its implications for commercial, general, and military aviation, and why inventors should “dream big.”
There is no way to supervise hundreds of engineers doing service repairs over a period of weeks, and that’s a huge threat to safety.
The TUDOR TECH AERIA is the first ever scanner for commercial airplanes, designed as technological support to be used in civil aviation in the fight against international terrorism. The scanner is able to show dual-view, high-resolution radiographies of the fuselage and wings of an airplane within minutes, and is capable of detecting a bomb or any other hidden objects on board or inside the “technical cavities” [areas that are inaccessible under current inspection procedures] of the airplane. Twenty to 25 percent of the volume of an airplane is represented by these so-called technical cavities, which are accessible for service and maintenance, but not for security inspection. For a B747, that’s the volume of an average-sized house that goes uninspected. This represents a systemic vulnerability in global civil aviation. Our aircraft scanner fixes this vulnerability and offers fast and reliable clearing of civil airplanes under bomb threat, or for fast security inspection of airplanes arriving from low security/high-risk origins of fly (about 30 percent of airports in the world are considered a low security level within a high risk region). These scenarios aren’t just theoretical; terrorist attacks and equipment malfunctions have happened before and can happen again anytime. There is no way to supervise hundreds of engineers doing service repairs over a period of weeks, and that’s a huge threat to safety.
How does it work?
The system generates simultaneous top and side view radiographies of the airplane, using state of the art multi-energy X-ray generators, detector boards, and proprietary imaging software. It is a mobile, non-intrusive system that uses a dual collimated X-ray beam oriented towards vertical and horizontal detector lines. The system is so precise and accurate that it can “see” objects as small as one millimeter and can automatically recognize organic materials, as well as targeted substances—such as explosives, narcotics, and cash—that are made of organic materials. The scanner also automatically recognizes heavy metals like uranium or tungsten, which are often used in military-grade weapons.
For a medium-sized airplane, the scan takes five to seven minutes and for a B747 or larger plane it takes around 15 minutes—a standard manual inspection can take up to 10 hours.
The idea came to me in 2009 after being invited by the U.S. Department of State to Washington, DC to present our truck-scanning solution. A Customs and Border Protection official asked me during a coffee break whether we could build a scanner for aircraft. At that time, he was concerned about private aircraft heading from South America to North America that were involved in drug trafficking and money flowing south as payments for illegal transactions. I told him we didn’t have a solution yet, but that I’d look for one. I began to search for solutions by first asking questions. I asked why it was that we scan luggage, cars, trucks, and containers, but not the planes themselves. After years and years of effort, the team of researchers I lead succeeded in generating a final concept and later on, a prototype. The initial prototype is much different than the current commercial version, which has been in testing for three years in various operational scenarios and climate conditions, and is ready to market.
On August 8, 2017, a large consortium of civil aviation authorities, security agencies, security aviation stakeholders, academic representatives, aviation industry representatives, and scientists from the aviation and aerospace fields, performed the last official trial conducted on an international airport by scanning commercial airplanes in various security and safety scenarios. The trials also proved the system’s ability to reveal some mechanical and structural anomalies of the airplane. The scanner would be able to detect if even one of screw was missing or if hydraulic oil is leaking, for example.
What is the ultimate goal of the invention and how will it help the aviation industry?
The patent is a way to prove our capacity to generate intelligent new solutions and protect my commercial interest as an investor in R&D.
The goal is to make global civil aviation safer and better secured, by reducing the security inspection time from 10 hours to a few minutes and by increasing the reliability of inspection results from the current 60 to 70 percent to nearly 100 percent. As the scanner can reveal mechanical and structural anomalies of the airplane as well, it could potentially help to detect the kinds of defects that can result in tragedies. If even a single bomb is discovered in the future, or a single mechanical anomaly, this will save the lives of hundreds of innocent passengers and our efforts will be rewarded.
Are there applications for it in other industries?
We have been building truck and car scanners for 15 years already. TUDOR TECH AERIA evolved from those solutions. We won the Grand Prix at the International Exhibition of Inventions at Geneva in 2009 for the first robotic scanner for trucks—a mobile scanner with no human presence in the scanning area that still today is the only solution of its kind. This means professionals are not exposed to ionized radiation and eliminates potential casualties in case of explosion of the inspected vehicle.
What patent(s) cover the invention?
The invention is covered by two international patents, which have been accepted in more than 45 countries without any comments or opposition.
Did you have any experience with patents/ IP prior to this experience, and do you have patents on other inventions?
I’m very familiar with IP rights in general and with patents in particular. I can say that I’m a “serial inventor,” as I am the named inventor on more than 20 national and international patents in the fields of security, medical technologies, traffic engineering solutions, and more.
Is the TUDOR TECH ARIA currently in production? How have patents helped you in the process of bringing it to market?
Yes, TUDOR TECH AERIA is now in production, and the first unit will be supplied to our client—a royal family from the Middle East—by the beginning of next year. The patent is a way to prove our capacity to generate intelligent new solutions and protect my commercial interest as an investor in R&D, but it also helps in the marketing of our products and solutions.
What advice do you have for other aspiring inventors?
My advice is to never stop dreaming and to never stop looking for ways to make their dreams a reality—even if sometimes it seems impossible. The harder you work, the closer the “impossible” will come to being possible. Secondly, have the courage to set their goals as high as they can imagine. The human imagination can never dream big enough. There is an infinite intellectual space in front of us to be conquered.