New electromagnetic technology targets human trafficking by more effectively detecting people hiding in lorries

Aerospace engineering firm Leonardo, which employs more than 2,000 people at Crewe Toll in Edinburgh, has unveiled a sensor which creates an electromagnetic field (EMF) which penetrates steel and concrete and detects energy being emitted from a person.

a boat in the water (C) An aerial view of a container ship.

The technology pinpoints a specific range of EMF frequency associated with humans which is as unique to them as a fingerprint – also known as someone’s “electromagnetic signature.” In Europe there are around 82 million migrants and organised crime groups are continually assessing how they can be one step ahead of law enforcement agencies. Criminals are getting bolder in terms of the number of people they are trying to traffic at any one time, leading to some tragic outcomes.

Methods of concealment include using a soft curtained HGV, a refrigerated lorry or a shipping container. Nigel Lidster, of Leonardo UK’s cyber division based in Bristol, said they found a range of detection technologies – X-ray based, carbon dioxide based, heartbeat or movement based – which could be used in such instances. However, special considerations are needed as border forces have no idea if they will come across a child, pregnant woman or someone with an underlying health condition.

French ionising regulations, for example, say X-rays can not be used due to potential risks to human health.

(C) The technology pinpoints a specific range of EMF frequency associated with humans

The main advantages of the EMF technology is that it is safer and is both high performing and difficult to counteract. Mr Lidster said: “We think this technology could help save more lives, as vulnerable people looking for a better life are being led into very dangerous conditions. We want to offer non-invasive technology that can prevent future tragedies from unfolding.”

Four men were jailed in January for the manslaughter of 39 Vietnamese migrants found dead inside a lorry trailer in Essex in October 2019. Three other members of the people smuggling gang were also jailed for conspiracy to facilitate unlawful immigration. The migrants suffocated in rising temperatures and carbon dioxide levels in a sealed container during a journey from Belgium.

EMF technology Mr Lidster and his team proposed a technology which would allow vehicles to free flow through a sensor field without any human intervention. The sensor would sit on a canopy over the traffic.

It also uses a wavelength which penetrates steel and concrete, provides an accurate detection and is non-harmful to humans and other animals and the environment. The EMF technology would only detect human life and avoid personal details, eliminating challenges with data protection. It would also be able to read the presence of a human around livestock, for example.

Already deployed at four borders in Europe, it has the capability to be used effectively at UK and other European border points to provide a standard of human presence detection that sets a new benchmark and would have a positive impact on the enforcement of human trafficking. Leonardo’s cyber team recently pitched the EMF solution during a Security and Policing event to end-users and experts across government, industry and academia. No timeline has been established yet for when it could be introduced into the UK.

A message from the Editor:

Thank you for reading this article.

We’re more reliant on your support than ever as the shift in consumer habits brought about by coronavirus impacts our advertisers.

If you haven’t already, please consider supporting our trusted, fact-checked journalism by taking out a digital subscription at