Vapor Wake detection dogs securing South Africa’s airports


Vapor Wake mobile explosive detection dogs are being used to secure all nine of South Africa’s major airports on behalf of the Airports Company of South Africa (ACSA). The uniquely trained dogs are able to detect body-worn explosives on a moving target.

Robbie Roberts, Director International Operation of Vapor Wake K9 SA, explained that the Vapor Wake approach is unlike any other canine training available locally. “Traditionally, explosive detection dogs are trained to view static objects or people. With Vapor Wake trained K9s, the major difference is that they are able to detect body-worn explosives on a moving target. This effectively allows them to accurately screen hundreds of people passing through a high flow entry point – such as in an airport or a stadium – in a way that is non-intrusive.” Roberts said Vapor Wake dogs search faster than conventionally trained dogs as they screen the area behind a person rather than approaching people individually.

The Vapor Wake system has been developed by Auburn University in Alabama as the only patented technology to detect body-worn explosives in transit. According to the VWK9 K9 Training Academy, a partner of Auburn University, “scent particles are carried behind a person in a ‘thermal plume’ produced by the body’s natural heat. A person’s natural thermal plume goes upwards when they are standing still, but as soon as they begin moving, the thermal plume extends behind them, much like the wake behind a boat in the water (thus the name, ‘Vapor Wake’). As soon as a Vapor Wake dog detects an explosive odour, it will follow the source: a person, a bag left behind, something carried inside and then hidden – a Vapor Wake dog will always follow the threat to its source.”

In one instance a dog at an American train station detected a man carrying a nitroglycerin tablet – whilst nitroglycerin is an explosive, it is also used as a heart medication. Vapor Wake dogs are trained to detect a wide variety of explosives, including TATP, which has been used in a number of international terror attacks.

In addition to its seven trained Vapor Wake dogs working at ACSA’s airports, Vapor Wake K9 SA provides canine screening of cargo. Cargo Screening K9 Alliance dogs are tested every 12 months in South Africa by assessors and trainers from Vapor Wake America.

Vapor Wake K9 SA is the first company outside the United States to use the Vapor Wake system, and has been active here for the last two years. The company is looking at expanding into the rest of Africa and is talking to potential clients in Kenya and Botswana especially with regard to airport security (international airports need to meet minimum security requirements, which dogs are able to fulfil).

Vapor Wake K9 believes there is big demand for detection dogs, especially after events like the suicide bombings in Sri Lanka.

Although it is expensive to train a dog and handler (R1.2 million over 18 months), the company is working on brining the costs down. Labradors are preferred as they have good scent capabilities.

Vapor Wake exhibited for the first time at the Securex security and fire trade exhibition at Gallagher Convention Centre in Midrand between 14 and 16 May.