Traveling with the Geiger

To share the story of someone traveling with the Geiger Kit at Heathrow airport on the way to Tokyo, and his advice for travelers . . .

"I have travelled a lot, and have plenty of experiences with airport security. In the past I have been dragged out onto the tarmac and had my hold bag opened in front of me because a plastic toy had metal parts inside that resembled a firearm. 

So I put the geiger counter in my hand luggage. OK, I admit it, I also wanted to measure the radiation at 36,000 ft. Anyway at security it went through the X-ray machine and they passed it through a second time, then asked me to open my bag. I pulled it out and they X-rayed it again. Then they asked me what it was and I turned it on to show them. Then I think they passed a sniffer wand over it (I guess it detects explosives) and then maybe they did some other check I'm not sure. 

Satisfied that it was OK they were about to let me go when the guy had second thoughts and said "let me just check with my supervisor". So the supervisor came over and they checked it again. The supervisor doesn't look like he knows much about anything and I suspect didn't know what a geiger counter was, so he goes and starts showing it to other members of his staff and asking them what they think. After a short discussion he asks me to wait and calls some other security guy
(maybe a more experienced supervisor at another check area or something). The second guy is ex-military and keen to tell me how many improvised explosive devices he's seen buried in the ground and how similar this looks to one. He actually is cool about it not being a danger, but points out (fairly) that if I got that out of my bag during the flight it might make people panic. He also drew my attention to an incredibly vague catch-all law that says you can be fined and imprisoned
for causing a bomb scare in an airport, even if it is not deliberate. I should say that I had screwed the PCB, a display, 9v battery and Geiger tube to a wooden plywood board and glued plywood sides to it but not had time to make a lid with holes cut out for the switches, display, LED, piezo etc.. So it looked very homemade. I explained to him that I was not a big and strong ex-military like himself and that I had no clue what an IED looked like, but could see his point. I also explained the
motivation behind taking a geiger counter to Japan, and for wanting to buy a kit instead of a commercially available product (although the average person usually can't understand why you would want to make it yourself). I asked if the cabin crew could take it instead; I know they do this for some items, they just stick it in a locked cupboard and give it to you when you get off the plane. He said it was up to the airline. 

So at this point it all looked OK. Then he said that he just had to notify the police, and that they would run a check on me (basically to see that I was who I say I was, and that I didn't have a criminal record or was on any danger lists or anything). So the local police came, then they decided they wanted to photograph it for training purposes, then they called all their friends and more police came ... security have a pretty boring job 99% of the time, so the 1% when they have something to
talk about they get very excited. So they ran all their checks and everything was fine. At this point I still under the impression it was all cool. Then they decided to call the specialist, plain-clothes airport guys. I guess at this point it had become such a big deal that nobody wanted to be the person responsible for giving it the OK. Anyway these guys were completely different. They acted all mysterious and disappeared off into mirrored rooms with my passport, periodically
sending out the previously friendly uniformed police to aggressively ask stupid questions like why is the bottom of the battery blue when it should be black (I have no idea, my 9v duracell battery had a blue base). I remained polite and reasonable, affable all the way through.

Even when some dim-witted ignorant police officer who told me he had experience with radiation and dosimeters was giving me a really hard time. He said that I couldn't post it because the postal service would detect that it was radioactive ... I told him that it was not radioactive to which he replied that it was, and when I told him point blank that he was wrong, he hesitated, realising his blunder. I should have let him down more gently but he was really trying my patience with his 'expert' ignorance and his own mistake made him turn argumentative.

Finally the 'expert' and some senior uniformed guy come and all the police completely change their tune, start telling me off like a child for what I've done and how stupid I have been and what was I thinking. Then they say we've got 5 minutes to get to the gate (which is far away) before boarding closes and we had better run, just sign here to say that I have handed it to them. So I sign -we are now in a huge rush-, and after that they suddenly say they are destroying it, which comes as a
complete surprise, and totally different to everything they said up until that point. Previously the worst case scenario was that the airline would post it and charge me for it (probably at great cost). So I suddenly realised that they are probably not allowed to confiscate property without some serious justification (and paperwork no doubt) so they deliberately waited until we were on the verge of missing our flight and tricked me into signing something saying that I had voluntarily handed it to them. Even if I hadn't signed I would have been forced to make a choice: miss the flight or give in to them. I told them
that what they had done was completely unacceptable, to which they sarcastically replied that I could stay and have it explained to me at length, or catch my flight. So that experience, plus the fact that I left my iPhone on the bus made me have a pretty bad day. I suppose some people would say that I had a bad day, but nobody died. I would say that they knew it wasn't a bomb, but they wanted to make their day more interesting and in doing so, some people in power acted unethically.

If taking this on a plane you can do the following things to avoid a catastrophe (and potentially a fine and imprisonment).
  1. If you haven't assembled it yet, just carry the kit as it arrived. Assemble it when you get there.
  2. Just post it to yourself before flying.
  3. Contact the airline before flying. This is probably the single most important thing you can do.
  4. Don't put it in your hold bag.
  5. Don't disguise it or put it anywhere that could be misconstrued as concealing it.
  6. Do not travel with a battery in place. This is tricky because they may want to see it switched on so you can prove it is what you say it is, and the display saying 'Geiger kit' when you power it on helps with that.
  7. Do not travel with the Geiger tube in place. The SBM-20 particularly resembles a detonator. Not much you can do about that. 
  8. Print off the PDF instructions with the photos and a page from the website. Store it attached to the PCB. Don't say anything, they will only believe it if they think they worked it out for themselves, not if you tell them.
  9. It helps if you have done a very neat and tidy job. If it looks improvised, i.e. presence of insulating tape, wires not carefully routed, mounted on a piece of wood, etc. they won't like it. Actually the only thing wrong with it is the way it looks, so silly as this seems, it is important."