STMs on a Plane: Prototype Electronics and Security Checkpoints

Before: in a cigar box

When I first mentioned I was going to demo the early prototype of the STM at the Open Science Summit, everyone who had actually seen the thing asked me (worriedly) how I was going to get it through the security checkpoints at the airport.

Looking for advice, I brought the prototype to Steve Y., the experienced head of security at my office, and asked what he thought I should do. “Well, what you have here doesn’t look great, but it’s not bad. Here’s what I’d do: put it in a nice box, put some official labels on there, put some kind of identifying label on there, and then send it through the X-ray machine alone. You’ll be fine.” With this pattern to follow, here’s what I did:

The Case:

I purchased a simple black blown-plastic box from American Science and Surplus.

Simple box from American Science and Surplus

When I got it home and cleaned it off, I added an ESD sticker from one of my parts purchases and hot glued a lining of anti-static foam (also from parts purchases). I also added a few strips of Velcro to the top area in case I want to have a tool or something stuck on the upper section of the box in a later incarnation.

Electronics sitting on a bed of anti static foam.

Once that was done, I used a label maker to create a few labels:

  • “Fragile Prototype” – on the front
  • My name and phone number – on the front
  • “Fragile” – on the back

After: labels and stickers applied

Packing the Electronics:

I put the electronics in the box with a little extra padding to prevent things from bouncing around.

The only thing in the box is the prototype and padding – no tools, extra parts, batteries, additional devices, or anything else. That stuff can all go somewhere else.

At the Checkpoint:

At the checkpoint, I simply went through as normal, except I took the electronics box out of my bag and placed it on the conveyor belt alone. In my two passes through security checkpoints, no one said anything to me, so I guess this was a success.

Final Thoughts:

I had just one wire break during transport, so next time I’ll pack it a little more carefully (or just get better at breadboarding).

The overarching philosophy I followed with this project was, through my actions, to tell as transparent (geddit? x-rays? transparent?) and simple a story as possible about what I was carrying.

The more objects and cruft near the electronics you’re carrying, the more misunderstandings and inspections you’ll have to deal with.


8 Responses to “STMs on a Plane: Prototype Electronics and Security Checkpoints”

  1. Jack says:

    Looking at your project makes me uneasy based on my own past experience. Loose wires are pretty much a no no for airport security. Putting it in a nice case was a big step towards rendering your project inert but they can still see the ‘scary’ wires in the X-ray machine. If I am still at the stage where I have wires hanging out of my project then I ship it using UPS. Usually though, I just go straight to a single circuit board and avoid the mess to begin with. Besides, loose wires are really bad for the longevity of your project anyway. Wires have been the #1 failure point of my projects over the years.

  2. Sacha says:

    @Jack: yeah, I was really, really nervous about travelling with a prototype. That’s why I wrote this article: I hope people will (successfully) use this pattern for their own prototypes.

  3. electronica says:

    Thanks for the tips, now i know how travelling with prototypes :) Some times i had to answer a lot of questions about the devices haha usually they dont understand

  4. Lisa says:

    Nice! We couldn’t get through security with Gatorade powder. It had to be tested for explosives. A Bic lighter full of fluid made it through every time though.

  5. Nick Britsky says:

    Leaving Maker Faire: SF 2010, I acquired my first Arduino set. I was so excited to use it. I installed the software on my computer the night before my flight and was ready to tinker on the plane. It never occurred to me that the TSA might have a problem with this. They let me through after a detailed interrogation but kindly asked me not to working any projects on the plane.

  6. Noah says:

    I’m about to travel with a circuit bent Speak and Math that I spent over $60 and 20 hours on, hopefully these tips will help me.

  7. Andreas says:

    I am travelling with my DSLR backpack and here in Europe it was never a problem passing the x-rays with my DIY cam controller which consists of some ICs and wires etc.