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Anyone who’s traveled with homemade electronics, breadboarded circuits, mint tin projects, or other DIY tech, knows how unnerving it can be going through airport security. Sacha, of Chemhacker, writes:

I just came back from traveling to the Open Science Summit with my hand-built Scanning Tunneling Microscope in tow — here’s how I got it to survive the flight and security checkpoints between ORD and SFO.

What is your approach to this? What have your TSA experiences been? Tell us in the comments.

STMs on a Plane: Prototype Electronics and Security Checkpoints

Gareth Branwyn

Gareth Branwyn is a freelancer writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture, including the first book about the web (Mosaic Quick Tour) and the Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Building Robots. He is currently working on a best-of collection of his writing, called Borg Like Me.


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Comments

  1. Shadyman says:

    Things to avoid having in your electronics box: Watches (TI MSP430, I’m looking at you), anything large that could be mistaken as a container. Ideally, batteries are removed to render the device inert.

    I’d feel safest if the connecting wires were documented and removed, but it looks like they’re soldered on to one of the boards.

    I would arrange it as neatly as possible on one layer so that everything is clearly visible. If nothing else, they’ll ask you questions and probably swab it down for trace.

    The neater (and more disconnected) the better.

    1. Alan says:

      If you follow the link, you’ll learn that he took this package through two security checkpoints and nobody batted an eye. They didn’t ask him any questions, and didn’t “swab it down for trace.” I can think of two possible explanations for that: the TSA staffers weren’t paying attention either time, or they were, and noticed that it doesn’t have any of the hallmarks of a bomb or weapon.

  2. Rob Cruickshank says:

    Well before 9/11, I flew to Tokyo with an art piece which comprised a bunch of circuit boards in a tupperware-style container, together with gel-cell batteries, and many metres of red wire connected to speakers which, since they were intended to be inconspicuously installed outside, were painted with camouflage patterns. After something like 18 hours in the air, I arrived at Narita airport, and promptly gapped out, and turned my back on the suitcase and walked away from it. Of course, minutes later, it was gone, so I had to find Security, and explained what I’d lost, and was led to two guys with “we’ve been expecting you” looks on their faces. It took a while to explain exactly what the thing was, but the magic word seemed to be “hobby”. “Ahhh. Hobby! Ok, you can go.” Everyone was actually very polite and helpful. I don’t think the story would play out in exactly the same way today.
    My two pieces of advice are:
    If possible, be able to demo your piece. A half-finished thing that you can’t demo will be percieved as more of a threat.
    Also, when traveling with odd things in your bags, get to security *early* to allow for extra grilling without the stress of missing your plane making you appear nervous.

  3. Collin Cunningham says:

    Whenever I travel with homebrew electronics, I pack them in my checked luggage (not carry-on), and include a friendly note that goes something like -

    “Hello TSA!
    I’m an electronics hobbyist travelling to [destination city] and these are my projects. Feel free to contact me @ [phone#] with any questions.
    Thanks,
    Collin”

    haven’t had a problem yet!

    1. Rob Cruickshank says:

      That’s very smart. I’m going to start doing that too.

      1. Gareth Branwyn says:

        I do a similar thing to Collin, but I never thought about including my cellphone number. That’s smart. I include a letter to the TSA and a copy of MAKE and tell them that I;m an editor there and traveling with samples of DIY electronics projects. I frequently find those “TSA was here” notices in my luggage, but nothing’s ever been damaged, broken, missing, etc.

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