New million-dollar x-ray scanner for Auckland Airport

3:25 pm on 18 December 2018

A new million-dollar x-ray scanner at Auckland Airport will make it easier for quarantine officers to pinpoint unwanted pests in the bags of international travellers.

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Auckland Airport's new scanner will make it easier to pinpoint items in the bags of international travellers. Photo:

The scanner features three-dimensional imaging, which will help identify items that have been hard to detect in the past, like dried meat, goods hidden behind laptops, stink bugs and smuggled fruit, Biosecurity Minister Damien O'Connor said.

The Rapiscan is the most sophisticated piece of x-ray technology that could be put in place at the airport.

"Our dynamic biosecurity environment means we must constantly adjust our scrutiny and strengthen our border security as threats emerge," Mr O'Connor said.

The scanner will check bags before passengers pick them up and images will be sent to quarantine ahead of any searches, similar to how security x-ray screening operates at many major international airports.

"Ultimately we want this technology in place across the passenger, mail and cargo pathways as traveller numbers and trade increase," Mr O'Connor said.

"It's important we all do our bit for biosecurity as we all benefit from a country relatively free of unwanted pests and diseases and we all suffer the consequences of an incursion."

Initially, it will be up to staff to identify the objects. Once they do so, they can single out images of the object and add them to a database of similar images within the computer.

The computer will then learn how to recognise risky objects, before people do. The more images the computer has, the better it will pinpoint problems.

New Zealand and Australia, which also has a machine in Melbourne, will swap images to build a fuller data set.

"New Zealand and Australia are two countries that rely on biological systems for our wealth creation and we have got to protect our systems," Mr O'Connor said.

"We must constantly adjust our scrutiny and strengthen our border security as threats emerge."

Ministry for Primary Industries spokesperson Brett Hickman said that the machine would be able to spot the difference between an apple and a tennis ball, for example.

It will stop staff "wasting time" looking at non-biosecurity items, he said.

It could take a number of months before the machine has enough data to recognise items itself. "It's like a baby; we have to teach it what exactly [the object] is."

The machine will scan bags before passengers pick them up, Mr Hickman said, adding that that should reduce wait-times for passengers exiting through customs.

The machine will be trialed over a year, with a view to replace the existing x-ray machines. It will also be considered as a system to monitor threats that appear in cargo and mail services.

Biosecurity New Zealand is also developing software with Australian counterparts that will allow the scanner to automatically recognise risky items such as fruit that could harbour fruit fly.

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