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ADE 651 and similar devices.

March 1, 2010

The ADE-651. Known more colloquially as "the magic wand that doesn't work and gets people killed".

As many of you might know, the BBC recently reported on the uselessness of the ADE 651 device, a piece of equipment that according to its maker Jim McCormick is capable of detecting explosives among other undesirables.  Subsequently, the government has moved to arrest Jim McCormick and banned “The export of ‘electro-statically powered’ equipment for detecting “explosives” under the Exports Control Act of 2002.

That was January this year, and frankly, it’s about time. The ADE 651, and various very similar devices have been in use for years in: Mexico, Thailand, Lebanon, Iraq, Pakistan and for a brief period, the US. In fact, the FBI issued a statement regarding a device known as the “Quadro Tracker” stating that it was a “fraud” warning that “All agencies should immediately cease using the device.” The statement was issued in 1995 and another, similar warning was issued in 1999 after the makers of Quadro Tracker were taken to court.

So 15 years ago it was well-known that devices like the ADE 651 were fraudulent and very little was done to combat this dangerous scam when it entered the UK. In 1997 the owners of Quadro Ltd were taken to court but subsequently acquitted. In the same year, the exact same device (It had a new sticker and was called the Mole Programmable Detection System) popped up in from a UK-based company called “Global Technical Ltd”. Later during the year ADSC ltd. was set up, under the name “Broadcasting and Telecommunications Limited” and 4 years later Comstrack ltd. (also UK-based) started marketing a product called the “Alpha 6”.  All these devices are:

a)extremely similar

b)being or have been manufactured in the UK

b)have been demonstrated to be useless

It was only until newsnight revealed their ineffectiveness on the 22nd of January, of this year, that our government decided  to act.  Brilliant.

So the government has taken action against the export of the ADE 651 and similar devices, but how does it (supposedly) work and more importantly, why is it wrong to use these to detect bombs?

According to ADSTC, the British company that produced and sold the device, the ADE 651 uses “electrostatic magnetic ion attraction” (which translates to: “random science sounding words”) and can detect the following things: firearms, ammunition, drugs, truffles(?), human bodies and even contraband ivory from… up to a kilometre away, through any substance (water, walls, whatever), and from an airplane kilometres up in the air. It’s also handheld and “points” the operator in the right directions. Walking powers it. Presumably, IMAGINATION is a valid alternative source of power.

Just so you know, the real bomb detection equipment that’s used in airports is massive, and has a puny detection range and weighs… a lot.  Here’s a picture of bomb detection equipment:

Taken from http://www.analogic.com/products-security-checked-baggage-examiner-3dx.htm

It's big, expensive and not very portable.

This has also been proven to work:

It's a dog.

So the ADE651 is not only smaller and lighter than competing bomb detection equipment, it also doesn’t need a power source  and can detect a vast range of threats through any kind of barrier. It is extremely portable, doesn’t need to poo or eat dog food and never breaks down. One wonders why it isn’t being used in our airports. If it sounds a bit too good to be true it’s probably because it is. Here is a picture of what the ADE 651 actually is:

18th Century Dowser.

He's not an 18th century plumber he's a dowser. A far less useful profession.

It’s the modern equivalent of  a dowsing rod. It is an empty box with a piece of metal sticking out of it. The device is being used by troops, at hundreds of checkpoints throughout Iraq, to detect bombs and… truffles.  Similar devices have been tested and were shown to perform no better than chance. Here is a report done by the United States navy on an almost identical device that shares all the design features of the AD651. The SNIFFEX.

Ok, I don’t actually expect you to read the entire report (although you are welcome to), so I’ll pick the juicy bits out for you. First off, this is what the engineers found when they investigated what was inside the device. It is important to do this because before testing a claim, because you need to assess whether what is being claimed is even plausible given our knowledge of science and technology. If what is being claimed doesn’t match up with what the device actually does… questions/eyebrows are raised.

The SNIFFEX has very few internal parts, comprised only of magnets of two different sizes, a brass cylinder, and a spring with a brass contact piece on the end of it. The brass cylinder contains an unknown gas whose nature is considered a trade secret. The brass cylinder lies between two groups of magnets. In the center of the top group of magnets, a small spring with a brass cap resting on it is pressed against the base of the antenna. This entire assembly is contained in the body of the SNIFFEX, which is closed with an end cap.

I’ve taken the liberty of highlighting the bit that’s rather suspicious. Of course, that a  bomb detecting device is made of a spring and a couple of magnets is in itself is pretty suspect, but the fact that this device runs on a MYSTERIOUS GAS is a big red flag.  It’s akin to someone telling you that their fantastic new engine runs on invisible unicorn snot, you don’t have to worry how it works you just have to know that it does. This gas could be anything! But what I suspect it actually is ….is nothing. Or at least it doesn’t need to be anything. The mysterious cylinder allows the makers of SNIFFEX to be excused for the fact that a couple of magnets and a spring is in no way capable of detecting bombs and contraband. Let alone all the other things that the makers of SNIFFEX claims it can detect.

The ADE 651 also has a “mysterious part” that does all the hard work. They’re called “programmed substance detection cards” and are supposedly vital in detecting different objects. One card would be capable of detecting TNT whilst another would be able to detect elephants, you get the idea. It will however come as no surprise to know that they can’t actually detect anything. Rather they are the small standard radio frequency tags that you get on clothes from high steet stores like TOPMAN. The cards have no microprocessor and no memory, they are not something you can program. The “programmed cards” that the ADE 651 utilizes is as much a flight of fantasy as the magical gas canister contained within the SNIFFEX.

Here’s a picture of the SNIFFEX alongside a selection of similar products, all by different companies, all claiming to be able to detect explosives and all equally useless.

See my crudely drawn diagram? It’s the one thing that all these devices have in common; an unimpeded pivot upon which the antennae can freely swivel. The device’s antennae is designed to swing freely, magnifying slight hand movements and perfectly facilitating the unconscious or conscious movement of the device’s operator. No, this isn’t special, it’s something called the ideomotor effect and it is the reason that devices like this seem to work when in fact they don’t. Here’s the crux of it: the ideomotor effect describes a psychological phenomenon where the unconcious movements of a user can make something seem to what it was intended. The key point is that the effect only works when the user is aware that the device they are handling is actually meant to do something. Vague? That’s because it’s a far-reaching phenomenon influencing a variety of occult and mystical phenomenon including Ouija boards, ghost writing and in this case, dowsing. Of course there are ways of checking for this effect and this is what the Navy did:

On one occasion, the vendor wondered if the building was influencing the accuracy of the device, even though their device is purported to be able to detect explosives through most any barrier. In response to this, the operator proceeded to walk around the outside perimeter of the building while twenty pounds of TNT were inside. As he walked, the SNIFFEX indicated that explosives were present within the building as evidenced by a clear antenna deflection. However, as he was noting the positive indication of explosives in the structure, two explosives trucks containing a total of 1,000 pounds of explosives drove up behind him to a distance of approximately twenty feet away. The SNIFFEX failed to show any indication of this much larger quantity of explosives.

This shows perfectly that it was the operator’s prejudices that influenced the outcome of the experiment and not the SNIFFEX’s machinery. If the SNIFFEX was capable, as the makers claimed, of detecting explosives up to 300 feet then presumably it would have been able to detect a truck filled with explosives driving just 20 feet away. The report also notes that at no point did the SNIFFEX operator’s claim that the device was malfunctioning. This is just speculation, but I have a feeling that they would have reported a malfunction if they knew how succesful they were up till that point. This information, as well as the significance of the truck, was withheld until the study was finished.

Conventional bomb detection systems either use x-rays to directly look into luggage or use a dog’s sense of smell to sniff explosives/drugs out. SNIFFEX has none of the advanced machinery required to generate and receive X-rays nor is the SNIFFEX a dog. Before tests are even conducted SNIFFEX has a major problem with the plausability of the mechanism. If the results of the study, showed that SNIFFEX did indeed work then major questions would have to be addressed concerning the nature of the mysterious gas housed inside it and our knowledge of physics. Whatever was inside the canister would have to be some kind of groundbreaking discovery! That is of course, if the trial showed that SNIFFEX worked. You’re probably feeling pretty skeptical about SNIFFEXs Efficacy right now.

As important as the data gained from the trial was, if the methodology used to gain that data was flawed then the data is worthless. Here is a brief summary of how the engineers conducted the tests:

“All baseline tests were conducted as double blind trials. In the first series of tests, four boxes were arranged on a flat, level area such that they formed the four corners of a square, fifty feet on each side. At most, only one box contained explosives for any given trial; for some tests, no explosives were present. While the explosives were being placed, the operators were removed from the test area to prevent them from knowing the explosive’s location.”

Again, i’ve highlighted the important bits. As mentioned before, a double blinded study is essentially a way of eliminating bias by preventing either the operator (for obvious reasons) and the experimenter from knowing which boxes contained the explosives. The boxes were placed an equal distance from the other boxes so that a false reading could not be reinterpreted to be correct. Imagine, for instance, that the boxes are placed close together in a straight line perpendicular to the operator. If the operator chose box number 2 and it turned out that it was box 3 that contained the explosives then it could be reasoned, after the study, that the device did in fact work and it was simply extremely sensitive to whatever signal TNT supposedly gives off.  Therefore, the boxes were clearly separated to allow for no error on behalf of the operator.  For some tests, no boxes contained explosives. By doing this the experimenters eliminated the chance (however small) that the operator would get lucky and manage to guess where the explosives are every time (he’d have to be pretty lucky).  Ok, so now that’s out-of-the-way, here are the results:

You’ve probably noticed that the SNIFFEX wasn’t very successful. There appears to be no correlation between the number of passes the operator made and rate at which the operator made correct guesses. In fact, during trial number 28 the operator managed to spend 10 minutes passing through the boxes 12 times and still got the location of the explosives dead wrong. You’d expect a device that actually worked to have an increase in accuracy as the volume of the material being detected went up. Here’s what the report had to say:

The SNIFFEX did not detect explosives. A summary of the results is shown in table 2. Every effort was made to meet the vendor’s needs to allow the device to operate under ideal conditions, but there was absolutely no indication the device met any single vendor claim. Discounting trials 1-6 where wind speed exceeded the operating specification of the device, testing resulted in an accuracy rate of 22%, five correct determinations and seventeen incorrect determinations, 3 of which were false positives.

A 22% hit rate is not very good. In fact it’s rubbish. You’d get the same hit rate by blindly guessing where the explosives are. And why would a working explosives detection device even use an aerial to point the operator in the right direction if was so susceptible to a slight gust of wind? Wouldn’t a digital read-out be a whole lot better? Oh wait, the SNIFFEX and its various clones are not working explosive detection devices, they are all useless tin cans. In fact they are worse than useless, they are outright dangerous since operators might put more trust in the device than their own common sense.  The Iraq forces would be just as well off  randomly pointing at individuals and searching them since the ADE 651 works on exactly the same principles as the SNIFFEX. [edit] Despite this pretty conclusive test, James Randi campaigning against devices JUST LIKE THIS for years and the general impossibility of SNIFFEX ever working as intended, the US military still decided to purchase 8 of these after the trial was completed. I have no idea if they ever went into use. A testament to politics being really dumb sometimes.

Scams such as the ADE 651 and the SNIFFEX abound, in fact according to the Pakistan news agency Dawn the ADE 651 has been exported to over 20 countries around the world. There is no shame in being tricked. As much as we don’t like to admit it, we are fallible. It’s often a much more attractive option to believe that something works because you want it to work than deciding whether something works after carefully examining the evidence. Governments have a responsibility to be vigilant for nonsense masquerading as science and I am entirely pleased that our own government has, as of last year, reformed the Science and Technology Committee with this goal in mind. Science needs to inform government policy , especially where security is concerned.

P.s. Since the US navy pretty conclusively demonstrated that the SNIFFEX didn’t work, the US company shut down. However, the firm responsible for marketing the SNIFFEX in europe now has a new product called the SNIFFEX HEDD1. Suffice to say, it’s exactly the same but with the added benefit of a battery attached to the bottom.  Be warned, this video is not only hilarious/painful to watch but it is an excellent demonstration of how all these handheld bomb/elephant detection devices operate. Skip the first minute to get to the good stuff.

Further Reading:

James Randis challenge. http://www.randi.org/site/index.php/swift-blog/231-a-direct-specific-challenge-from-james-randi-and-the-jref.html

The Independant article on the arrest of Jim McCormick. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/head-of-bomb-detector-company-arrested-in-fraud-investigation-1876388.html

BBC’s Newsnight’s debunking of ADE-651 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/newsnight/8471187.stm

Ray Hyman, a professor of psychology at the university of Oregon, writing about Ideomotor Action http://www.quackwatch.org/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/ideomotor.html

And finally, if you ever fancy blowing yourself up, here’s the website of the company that makes the SNIFFEXwithaddedbattery HEDD1. Feel free to laugh at a bunch of men walking around with car aerials.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Diohuni permalink
    February 15, 2011 1:04 pm

    See latest from BBC Newsnight investigation here:

    We’ve been running with the campaign against these frauds since 2008 here in the UK when Techowiz and I saw the challenge to the ade651 on randi.org

    Looks like good progress is being made in connecting up all the Quadro Tracker, Sniffex, HEDD1, ADE 651 and GT200 frauds, plus many others.

    Seems Yuri Markov brought the scam to Europe from the US with the help of the following fraudsters:
    James McCormick
    Gary Bolton
    Sam Tree
    Malcolm Row
    Simon Sherrard
    John Wyatt
    David Vollmar
    and may others
    Hopefully soon to be jailed and their dodgy money confiscated.

  2. February 20, 2011 12:20 am

    check fo rmore info at:

    ade651gt200scamfraud.blogspot.com

    explosivedetectorfrauds.blogspot.com/

    sniffexquestions.blogspot.com

  3. March 29, 2011 7:04 pm

    Please sign th epetition here:

    http://www.change.org/petitions/demand-action-and-justice-in-fake-explosive-detectors-scandal

    If interested in the history please see here:
    http://www.scribd.com/full/51676711?access_key=key-11r7th4aq0zgvhd6q2b4

    HISTORY

    http://www.scribd.com/full/51703923?access_key=key-231darif3gwjtk07acrp

    FED ACCOUNTING

    http://www.scribd.com/full/51676708?access_key=key-119dzmlzr6r8yaww7fid

    PICTURE GALLERY

    ROGUES GALLERY

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