A Solution to the New TSA Requirement for Charged Electronics

An external battery can recharge dead batteries in most portable electronics.
An external battery can recharge dead batteries in most portable electronics.

On Sunday the TSA announced that passengers may be required to turn on their mobile electronic devices as part of security screening.

If the device doesn’t turn on, it would be deemed suspicious and the passenger would not be allowed to travel with it.  This new rule applies at unnamed international airports on flights traveling inbound to the US.  Subsequently the UK announced similar rules applying to some flights in and out of the UK, and we believe other countries are implementing similar rules too.

While it doesn’t currently seem to be applicable to domestic flights within the US, it is appropriate to ‘assume the worst’ and so now ensure that, any time you fly anywhere, all the portable electronics you are taking onto the flight with you have at least some charge in them and can be turned on.  It seems inconceivable that it you were selected for random additional screening and a TSA officer tried to power on something and couldn’t, that he would simply ignore that and allow you to proceed with no problems.

It is annoying enough to have a tiny pocket knife or a bottle of water seized at security, but it would be far worse to have one’s phone or laptop confiscated (and the TSA has made no provision for returning seized devices to you).  On a series of long international flights, it is far from impossible to end up with a dead battery in a device – maybe you forgot to turn it off, or maybe you just used up the battery charge during the flights and while waiting for flights.

The Simple Solution

There’s a simple solution to this.  There are many different external rechargeable battery products that can provide 5V (standard USB type) power to recharge any of your mobile devices that can be charged from a USB type power source.  They range from small to huge in power storage capacity, with similar variations in size/weight and price.

Another issue to consider is that if you have a tablet of any sort,  it probably requires recharging at a higher current rate than other devices.  The standard USB 2.0 specification allows for 0.5 amps (ie 500 mA or 2.5 W) of power to be available to power or charge a device connected to the USB port.  This is sufficient to recharge a phone or an eBook reader, albeit possibly somewhat slowly, but a tablet often uses more than 0.5A while switched on, and so connecting it to a charger with only a 0.5A current flow merely slows down its rate of discharge and doesn’t actually charge the device at all.

Ideally you need to be able to deliver 2A or more of power to a tablet – for example, an iPad 3 or iPad 4 has a huge 11.6 amp hour battery inside – and that would require six hours of charging at 2A to go from empty to full.

(Note that of course you don’t need to have your devices fully powered, even a 5% top-up charge would be sufficient to be sure it will power on when needed, and all the TSA cares about is that the device will power on, not the state of its battery charge.)

Another consideration is that some of these external power sources have only one USB port, others have two or three, allowing you to charge two or three devices simultaneously.

We have long recommended these devices as a solution to an already present problem – running out of charge – and now they become even more useful as a way to protect yourself against an airport security hassle.

We have reviewed various of these devices over the years, and our most recently reviewed product remains a favorite, the Anker Astro 3 with its enormous 12 Ahr (ie 12000 mAh) capacity and three ports on it (click for our review).  It is currently priced at about $46 on Amazon .

If you feel this is overkill, Anker make smaller units too – less capacity, but also less size/weight and cost.  For example, their Mini unit weighs less than 3 ounces, is similar in size to a tube of lipstick, and has 3 Ahr of power in it, enough to revive dead phones and other small devices and at least get the battery up to a point where it is sure to turn on when tested at security.  It is priced at $17-20 on Amazon, depending on your color choice.

A very similar device from RAVPower is not only a little cheaper ($13) but also has an LED flashlight built into it as well.  While we really like Anker products, if we were choosing a tiny device, the RAVPower unit would probably be our preferred choice due to its flashlight feature.

What About Your Laptop?

Perhaps the most valuable piece of electronics you have with you would be a laptop.  The potential problem with a laptop is that recharging a laptop normally requires a mains power adapter; the battery inside a laptop has a higher voltage (and requires a greater current) than provided through a typical 5V USB adapter.  Standard external rechargers such as those mentioned above can’t help if you need to urgently top up your laptop.

However, there are some external power supplies that will provide a 9V or 12V output  as well as the 5V USB standard.  If you get one of those, and an adapter for your laptop to allow it to charge from a 9V or 12V power supply, that would solve your problem.  Many laptops have an accessory available that will allow the laptop to be charged from a 12V power supply (such as provided in a car).

Here is an Anker unit that would be suitable for such a situation.

Camera Considerations

It is easy to forget, when doing a mental inventory of your mobile electronic devices and the state of their battery charges, that cameras are of course portable electronic devices, and subject to the same requirement as phones, tablets, Kindles, laptops, and so on.

So make sure your camera battery still has some life in it too.

If you are buying a new camera, you might want to give preference to cameras that can be charged with the battery inside the camera, via a USB cable, rather than cameras which require the battery to be removed and charged in a special external charging device.  This would simply cut down on the amount of ‘stuff’ you need to travel with, and make it easier for your emergency external battery to be used to put some charge into your camera battery too if you find yourself with a power problem at security.

Checked vs Carry-On Bags

It seems the TSA mandated scrutiny applies only to carried on devices, not to anything in your checked bags.

You might wonder ‘Why would a terrorist only carry a bomb onto the plane, rather than simply put it in his checked bag?’, especially if checked bags won’t be scrutinized to the same high standard as carried on bags, but that’s a question beyond our reach and apparently something the TSA knows best about!

The happy outcome for us is that if we do find ourselves, prior to starting our travels, with a dead device, we can simply stick it in our checked bag and avoid the need to turn it on.

Most Important – Don’t Forget….

Need we point out that part of your preparing/packing routine should be to charge up the external battery/power source you will take with you to provide emergency top up power!  These devices, like all rechargeable batteries, slowly drain their charge just while sitting, doing nothing, so you need to check their charge every few weeks.

And of course, please also make sure you have the necessary connecting cables to enable your devices to be charged from the external battery.

The  Nonsense of the New Security Rule

We can’t finish this article without pointing out the weakness of the rule.

The intent of the rule is of course to detect a device that has been ‘hollowed out’ and its insides replaced with a bomb.  That’s a worthy aspiration, for sure.

But a terrorist clever enough to take an iPad apart, and replace its internals with a bomb is surely clever enough to simply replace the large battery with a tiny battery, sufficient to provide a few minutes of power, and then to use the freed up space, and any other available space in the iPad for placing their explosive.  Indeed, leaving some remaining battery supply would provide the bomb with the power source it needs to initiate its explosion, killing two birds with one stone (or is than an unfortunate analogy to use in this case?).

Yes, there’d be less explosive in such a device, but if we were terrorists, we’d probably choose to use a large laptop rather than a tiny phone or whatever, and we’d have much more space in the laptop for explosives.  We could remove the CD and hard drive bays, using a miniature SSD instead to enable the computer to boot up and run an OS normally, and also take out some of the non-essential electronics (fans and heatsinks) as well as most of the large battery.  This would leave space for more than enough explosive to ‘do the job’, especially if the laptop was then placed on the side of the plane from a window seat prior to being detonated.  And that would be something that could not be detected by the ‘turn on’ test at all.

But the biggest vulnerability of all is one that has already been demonstrated.  As we mentioned above, this new rule appears to exclude devices in checked bags entirely, and keep in mind that the Pan Am 747 that was spectacularly destroyed by a terrorist bomb in 1988 had its bomb concealed inside a radio cassette player in a checked bag.  The TSA’s response to that is to sort of require bags to accompany passengers (but if a suicide bomber is happy to carry a bomb onto a plane, surely he is equally happy to check it as baggage), and to X-ray the bags before allowing them on.  But if similar X-ray machines can’t detect explosives in our carry-on bags, what chance do they have of finding them inside checked bags?

Yet again, we find our security is predicated on the hope that the terrorists are stupider than the TSA.  And what do you think the chances are of that being a valid assumption?

That is something to think about while waiting in the longer line than normal while the people in front of you are having to turn on their MP3 players, phones, eReaders, etc……

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