Sunday, 4 December 2011


Wenn der Hund bellt und ist bissig,
und ich bin verzagt,
Ganz einfach sofort wird mein Kummer vergeh'n
Ich denke an das was schön

Why the German? Back to Bonn again to meet our pals, David Vollmar and Frank Trier at Unival. The sellers of the HEDD1 (Hasn't Even Detected DooDoo Once!).

We have had a Financial Times Germany article translated, and it tells me some of my favourite things. Like what idiots Vollmar and Trier, and anyone who falls for the HEDD1 are. Like how they never produce legitimate evidence. Like the fact that they are really getting upset with us.

Translation from Financial Times Deutschland (FTD) article on Unival and the HEDD1.

Date of publication: March 19th 2010.

New bomb detector “Wünschel Dir was”.

A little black apparatus with a tuning antenna on top could make the body-scanner controversy in Germany come to an end: The HEDD1 is supposed to locate explosives from as far as 100 meters away, even through walls. If only there weren´t so many doubters. Serge Debrebant (author), Bonn, Nora Schlüter (assistance)

It is an unpleasant winter's day, cold and damp, and the underground car park in Bonn where I  find myself is not exactly welcoming. But I am accepting the circumstances because I am about to become witness of a security-technology revolution: The Unival company is demonstrating its bomb detector to me, a hand held device with the somewhat impersonal name "HEDD1". Upon closer inspection, the 276 gr machinery looks like a black bicycle grip with some sort of antenna attached to it, which in turn will rotate towards the direction where the bomb is.

If you believe the manufacturer, this device is more effective than any comparable bomb detectors on the market. As a genuine all-rounder, it may detect TNT, dynamite, liquid, plastic, and many other explosives from a distance of up to 100m. Even concrete walls are no obstacle. "There is no other technology that is able to discover explosives from such a distance” says David Vollmar. He is the founder and owner of Unival Group, a small, young company for security technology in Bonn. "The detection rate of HEDD1 is over 80 percent."

Unival coach (Head of Training) Frank Trier demonstrates the application of HEDD1

But you have to know that Vollmar does not refer to scientific tests, but rather to more than 100 presentations that were organized by Unival. If the 80 percent detection rate were really true, the HEDD1 could solve many security problems in one swoop. Self-made roadside bombs in Afghanistan? No problem. De-mining? Ditto. With HEDD1 the Detroit aeroplane bomber would never have slipped through the checks. If it was up to Vollmar, the world would not discuss the use of body scanners at airports, but the HEDD1.

Why does it not? Because many experts doubt that bomb detectors like HEDD1 are anything more but a self-deception of the user. In recent years, a whole group of models appearing very like dowsing/divining rods came on the market, to detect explosives through the antenna swinging. The best example is ATSC, a British company that has delivered a device called the ADE651 to Iraq. Among other things - the government in Baghdad bought more than 1,500 pieces at a price of up to 45,000 pounds.

In January, the company owner was arrested on suspicion of fraud. Inside the detector only simple RFID tags were found, as used, for example, in shops to prevent theft. According to scientists from the University of Cambridge it is impossible for these tags to discover anything at all. Nobody knows how many people lost their lives at checkpoints, because the security forces relied on the ADE651.

Unival do not want to be associated with such charlatanism. Now I want to convince myself of how the HEDD1 functions properly. For this reason I hide two small explosive charges in the underground car park: a rifle cartridge and a pack with New Year's Eve firecrackers. Vollmar and Frank Trier, who is responsible for customer training at Unival, wait outside. They are convinced of the potential of their product: "In the next one to two years, we will have sold up to 3,000 units," says Vollmar. The cost of around 8000 € for an apparatus is almost a bargain: A body scanner is at least $ 150,000.

The predecessor of HEDD1 was sold some 2000 times to 40 countries around the world, including to the Turkish army, the Iraq interior and defence ministries and the Italian border patrol - but also to the German Wisag, a service provider with approximately 20,000 employees. For a discussion of the detector there was no one available (at WISAG) on request.

Behind the invention of HEDD1 is a tinkerer named Yuri Markov, a Bulgarian. For more than 15 years, the former telecommunications engineer has worked on the development of the system that was first marketed in the U.S. under the name "Sniffex" - and that the German company Unival now exclusively distributes as HEDD1. Markov will not reveal what technology exactly is behind it,  For example, he does not say what is inside that metal container that is at the heart of the detector. Trade secret.

What he reveals is: The HEDD1 creates a "modulated magnetic field" if the magnets above and below the metal container set the substance in vibration. Additionally, a magnetic field is created around the explosive substance. In the event of magnetic fields overlapping, the antenna turns towards the direction of the bomb. The human body thereby acts as some sort of amplifier.

One of Markov's harshest critics is the professional skeptic James Randi, a former magician and escape artist, who has made it his mission to expose charlatans and pseudo-scientists. Sniffex he calls "a fake, a fraud, a hoax." Unconscious self-deception of the user, are responsible for the movements of the device is a similar way to a seance glass moving. The U.S. Navy has proved him right.  They tested the Sniffex after the bombings in London, the report appeared in 2008 on the research portal ProPublica. In one test scenario, two trucks laden with 500 kilos of explosives directly drove past the Sniffex. Reaction? None. The result of the investigation: "The Sniffex hand held detector is not able to detect explosives."

For Vollmar, however, the test does not speak against Sniffex but rather against the Navy "The previous (Sniffex) devices were difficult to handle. The Navy has operated the equipment incorrectly. Under these conditions, the test does not succeed." In one photograph, published with the report, a man holds a bomb detector in front of him like a revolver. Completely wrong, to do it that way. How to do it right? Trier shows me during the search of the car park: Pull out the antenna, smoothly and direct it downwards. Then he presses the device against the side of the chest and positions it forward. Like this, Trier walks in circles several times, to explore the terrain.

What does the scientific community say about this? "I'm not an expert on magic wands or April Fools', grumbles a researcher who does not want to be named, but who himself has once worked on developing a bomb detector. Even for Franz Fujara, professor of Physics at the TU (Technical University) Darmstadt the whole thing appears "a bit obscure". "Scientific terms are indeed being used, but together they make no sense," says the physicist. The patent application of HEDD1 was "either very foolish or an insolence." The other four scientists with whom I speak are also more than skeptical. "We do not believe that one can detect such small magnetic fields at such distances," emailed me Hannes Toepfer, a professor of physics at the TU (Technical University) of Ilmenau. But Mr. Trier and Mr. Vollmar have now got the opportunity to convince me of the opposite.

The antenna reacts for the first time and points very clearly towards a Mercedes. "Before we now crawl on the floor – will you not want to clarify this," asks Vollmar. But they can crawl endlessly: There is nothing hidden (in the Mercedes). Unless the driver maybe has firecrackers in the trunk. Now Vollmar also grabs himself a HEDD1 and joins the search. This time, the antenna points at a car that is covered with a blue tarp. It's a bit like Hit the Pot (children´s game): warm but not hot. The package with the firecrackers is under the car next to it. The next indication again is a blank. Vollmar picks up a traffic cone and looks behind a fire extinguisher. Nothing.

Perhaps it is smarter to rely on conventional detectors instead of modulated magnetic fields, even if they do not guarantee complete security. At airports, for example, metal detectors and X-ray machines are being used. So-called egis devices analyze traces of compound gases that are often used with explosives. All these techniques have drawbacks, however: they are too slow, too prone to error, difficult to operate or they can only detect specific explosives. That is why intensive research on new technologies is done.

In the parking garage Vollmar is screwing up his last chance. Although the antenna is pointing in the right direction - the last remaining corner of the parking garage - but when Trier walks down the line of cars, the antenna, again, does not point at the right car. "That surprises me," mutters Trier. Vollmar explains: "We do not exactly know where to find the material we can only roughly tell and if you find something, you have to lock down the premises and call the bomb squad..."

So far, hardly any Western agency acquired a HEDD1 or its predecessor. But Vollmar hopes that this will soon change. A German security agency is supposedly considering a purchase. Which one it is, he does not want to reveal. The press offices of BKA (Federal Criminal Department) and BND (Federal Intelligence Agency) refuse to comment, and the Federal Office for Defense Technology procurement denies any interest.

Vollmar and Markov intend to further invest into the technology in the coming years. A prototype for antibiotics has already been developed, says Markov. Detectors for chemical, biological and nuclear warfare agents are being planned. A silver bullet that is. Only the U.S. Department of Justice again makes everything look bad. Ten years ago it issued a warning: "Be wary of devices that use a pivoting rod, which is held almost horizontally, and which points at the sought material."

No scientific test has ever confirmed the functioning of such devices. The description perfectly fits the HEDD1 – even though, at the time, it did not exist.