Mircea Tudor remembers building his first invention at the age of 16. Buying an oscilloscope in 1970s Romania was impossible, so the gadget-obsessed schoolboy who wanted to use one to monitor electrical signals simply built his own.
Later, at the national railway company, which struggled with a shortage of foreign currency under Nicolae Ceausescu’s regime, Mr Tudor redesigned components for ageing western machinery from scratch. “It was a real school of invention,” he says.
Nowadays, this year’s winner for Romania of the EY World Entrepreneur of the Year is busy revolutionising the aviation industry. Mr Tudor’s company MB Telecom has developed Roboscan Aeria; the world’s first security scanner for an entire aircraft. The device has won industry acclaim and established MBT as a pioneer in aviation security.
It is a far cry from tinkering with home electronics, but Mr Tudor’s pioneering innovation in aviation security came from a seemingly simple realisation.
“Consider all the gaps between a conventional airport security check and the aircraft — all the insiders between the baggage scanners and the jet airside. The real security gap is that the actual aircraft is not scanned,” he says.
For four decades, the aviation security industry has been on a mission to thwart terrorist bombers and drug smugglers by scanning baggage, passengers and cargo. But the industry had missed one crucial vulnerability — so obvious it astonished Mr Tudor — the aeroplane itself.
“The only way to be 100 per cent sure if an aeroplane is clean is to scan it. That’s what we set out to do,” he says.
“The point was to find empty spaces in the aeroplanes that investigation authorities don’t examine — inside the wings and cavities in the structure. Airports need special service teams to dismantle the plane to find these gaps and they often don’t have that expertise.”
Mr Tudor’s scanner is mounted on a crane boom raised above the plane that beams a triangular carton of radiation downwards. A robot tug pulls the aircraft at a constant speed past the scanner while an operator receives an instant X-ray of the aircraft. The whole procedure takes two to three minutes and can detect objects as small as half a millimetre in size.
The main targets of the scanner are drugs and bombs, although it can detect any kind of organic material. Smuggling risks are particularly acute in small aircraft which use often use private aerodromes to evade detection of illegal drugs cargo. But even larger commercial jets are not immune — 1.8 tonnes of cocaine was found in an Air France plane that arrived in Paris from Venezuela in 2013.
The development of the Roboscan Aeria sprang from border scanning technology that MBT had developed for screening trucks crossing the EU’s external border at Romania’s frontier checks. That innovation won MBT the Grand Prix Trophy of International Exhibition of Inventions of Geneva in 2009.
Then, on a visit to Washington DC, a senior US official suggested that Mr Tudor produce a similar product for screening aircraft. MBT repeated its success at the exhibition in Geneva in 2013, when the Aeria took the top prize once more.
The scanner is already in operation at one airport in Romania and is protected by an international patent. Regulators, including the US Federal Aviation Authority, have signalled the technology will become mandatory in all airports in the coming years, says Mr Tudor, adding: “Within five years, it will be a must.”
Founded in 1994, Mr Tudor’s MBT is a relatively small private company. In aviation security, it is competing with five or six big suppliers, but the product has positioned the company at the forefront of a field that has expanded massively since the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York’s World Trade Center.
Mr Tudor says 95 per cent of the company’s €3m-€5m annual profits are invested in research and development, which is the focus of almost half the company’s 130 employees. It’s a nimble and innovative company, split between Switzerland and Romania, poised to rise on a coming regulatory wave mandating increased vigilance against drugs and weapons smuggling.
The company is already trialling applications for the scanner for clients including the French and Moroccan air forces. In June, MBT will present a prototype dual-view scanner to scan military aircraft for damage sustained in combat.
Mr Tudor appears to have kept the relentlessly innovative spirit of his teenage years in rural Romania. Even as he pitches the Aeria for airports worldwide, his mind is turning to new products in radiation and laser technology for medical science.
He says: “Today’s world faces more and more security threats and this accelerates the decision to invest in security tech. We will continue to invest in traditional research and development, but we are also looking at medical fields.”
Mr Tudor says there are plenty of suitors interested in buying the company but he’s in no rush.
“Each passing day brings value to my company. I have no problems getting the finance to invest, so I’m very relaxed about choosing a strategic partner or maybe going public at some point.”