The London-based Counter-Terror Expo showcases the latest in security and surveillance for counter-terrorism experts.
Photo credit: Counter-Terror Expo
It was all going so well. The suicide attacker had been subdued and the bomb disposal robot was delicately unpicking his clothing to neutralise his device. Then a slip of the remote-controlled claws sent the cylinder of explosive rolling across the floor, scattering a gaggle of startled civilians.
Such were the perils of attending Counter-Terror Expo 2013, Britain's premier event for showcasing and selling paraphernalia from giant armoured vehicles to sparrow-sized surveillance drones designed to deal with the threat posed by those bent on destroying lives and livelihoods.
Fortunately, in this case the homemade bomb escaping from the coat of a mannequin "terrorist" on the floor of the Northrup Grumman unmanned vehicles stand at London's Kensington Olympia turned out to be a gaffer-taped tube of nothing more explosive than polystyrene.
There could be no doubting the serious intent of the event, which is a shop window for a multibillion market for British and other manufacturers who make their money selling the equipment, from unfathomable quantities of vehicle bollards to airport scanners, that have become a necessity in the post-9/11 world. According to one estimate, global spending on counter-terrorism is about $70bn (£45bn) a year.
But the sales patter about ballistic vests and facial recognition software was also tinged with recognition that the bombing at the Boston Marathon had proved that there are deadly threats which no existing technology can prevent.
Jessica Conway, sales manager for American X-ray and explosive detection company Auto Clear, said: "Of course technology can help but when you are in an open-air situation like we saw in Boston with people moving freely, it is extremely difficult to detect an attack. The best asset would be sniffer dogs, which are more sensitive than any machine. But even they get tired."
The acknowledgement of counter-terrorism's grim article of faith that an attacker only needs to be lucky once to succeed nonetheless did little to dent the enthusiasm - or the testosterone-fuelled buzz in the sprawling hall. Among the stalls attracting the most interest was the Throwbot, a rodent-sized titanium robot camera capable of being thrown 30m (98ft) and wheeling its way into enclosed space to film terrorists and relay back their conversation. Costing £10,000 each, British users include the Metropolitan Police, which bought four of them for last year's Olympics.
Barry Harris, head of international sales for the Throwbot's American maker, ReconRobotics, said: "American law enforcement have adopted the technology widely and openly. But the further east you go, the more difficult it becomes. We have good sales in Europe, but clients prefer not to talk about it. China should be a big market but they need less. Many places still prefer to kick down doors and take out a target that way."
Amid the thicket of surveillance drone manufacturers was a Galashiels company specialising in paper targets for police firearms training. Amid the latter's current offerings is a suicide bomber named "Omar" and "Kaz", a trenchcoat-clad gunman whose weapon is interchangeable with a can of Fosters.
Among those on the guest list were the Post Office, easyJet, Ladbrokes, Pakistan High Commission and the embassies of China and Egypt.
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