Travelling with home-made custom electronics

Old May 9, 18, 6:38 am
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Travelling with home-made custom electronics

I'll be travelling to a maker art event at the end of May. This will be a first for me travelling will all my scary-looking boards, wires and lots and lots of cords. Thinking of disassembling the entire project into its components into different static-safe bags for getting through security. I'm pre-check, but i'm pretty sure this pile of home-made stuff will look a bit strange.

Would it make sense to approach TSA before the checkpoint and point out what i'm travelling with? Its components include: One raspberry pi, 2 LED controller boards, 8 led strips, various cables to connect all these pieces that will end up installed into an interactive sculpture at my destination. Would an event flyer help? I put a lot of work into this project and would hate to see it ruined at the very end.
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Old May 9, 18, 8:53 pm
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That's less than is just in my little pack-it cube full of cables and adapters - you'll probably be fine. If it's easy enough to take apart and just have as parts, it might not hurt to do that, or if when assembled the wiring is all neat and orderly it might be easier in the x-ray, too. Having all the cables neat and orderly (whether assembled or disassmbled) will help them sort out what they're looking at. My pack-it is a medium pack-it cube with two 7" grid-its filled with cables, adapters, chargers, laser pointers, watch batteries, small electronics, and a few band-aids and some earplugs. It's never triggered a bag search.

I've traveled with large amounts of carry-on electronics a few times, including a "homemade" field instrument just inside the carry-on limit that had a small automotive computer, a bunch of DAQ stuff, and some 99 Wh Li-Ion batteries (carried separately). We brought along photos of the insides, some papers we'd published, and a sacrificial screwdriver (that we wouldn't mind having confiscated) in case they wanted to look in the case. Nobody blinked at security in LA, but when we switched terminals for the international at JFK they asked if they could look inside. I said sure, but we'd need a screwdriver (having forgotten about the sacrificial one). They decided to swab it instead.

Once when traveling with several small commercial instruments and a lot of cables that I had to carry on (the cost of not having them in case of lost or damaged bags at the other end was too high) I just took over the belt and unpacked everything into bins. I think it was 6 bins. No issues getting through.

Edit: It also may help that I'm a middle aged white guy. When one of my students was traveling by himself internationally with the instrument (and there was some schedule wiggle room) he chose it ship it instead. I started to suggest that he carry it, but he pointed out that he's a hairy middle eastern-looking guy in his mid 20s and I agreed on shipping it.
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Old May 10, 18, 6:18 am
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I'm probably the last person you'd suspect with this hobby, as in very pale Caucasian lady in her 50's. Yep, Grandma likes to build stuff! I think i'll go with disassemble and reassemble on site. It will be easier to protect the individual boards that way, and i don't have to worry about a connector getting banged up. I'd offer to set it up and demonstrate what it does, which is so very harmless, it's basically a very pretty light show, but that would be a pain, lol.
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Old May 10, 18, 7:33 am
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There is no need, no value, and only downside in raising the issue to TSA. As with all electronics, you have to be prepared to demonstrate that it works, but that is something which so rarely occurs that it's not worth worrying about.
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Old May 10, 18, 11:50 am
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it's not a problem; your bags and materials might be get swabbed for ETD (explosive trace detection).

Last edited by Section 107; May 14, 18 at 8:48 am
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Old May 10, 18, 10:27 pm
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I think even with all my electronics I can't remember the last time I got swabbed. I did once confuse an x-ray reader when I had two of the same model laptop stacked in my backpack (I had pre), and apparently really well aligned. He asked if I had two identical laptops and I told him yes, and offered to take them out. He just ran it through the x-ray a second time and paused and flipped through his image options then sent me on my way.
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Old May 11, 18, 7:28 pm
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Electronics all look the same on xray. It's not a big deal, I've traveled with circuit boards and wires and not had issues.
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Old May 14, 18, 2:42 am
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Can you tell the pro's and cons for this one? I would appreciate it.
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Old May 14, 18, 3:16 am
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Originally Posted by stacehumphrey View Post
Can you tell the pro's and cons for this one? I would appreciate it.
What do you mean?
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Old May 21, 18, 9:17 pm
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Originally Posted by jampa View Post
I'll be travelling to a maker art event at the end of May. This will be a first for me travelling will all my scary-looking boards, wires and lots and lots of cords. Thinking of disassembling the entire project into its components into different static-safe bags for getting through security. I'm pre-check, but i'm pretty sure this pile of home-made stuff will look a bit strange.
I used to fly often with several unusual electronics. Piles of cords and wires were usually ignored, especially if they were coiled neatly, but devices containing big capacitors or large batteries would always get hands-on inspections, including the swabbing for residue check.

If you disassemble the project, would you need to bring tools with you to put it back together?
Originally Posted by jampa View Post
Would it make sense to approach TSA before the checkpoint and point out what i'm travelling with?
I wouldn't do that.
Originally Posted by jampa View Post
Would an event flyer help?
Having a copy in your luggage wouldn't hurt.
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Old May 22, 18, 7:54 am
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Originally Posted by RatherBeOnATrain View Post
I used to fly often with several unusual electronics. Piles of cords and wires were usually ignored, especially if they were coiled neatly, but devices containing big capacitors or large batteries would always get hands-on inspections, including the swabbing for residue check.

If you disassemble the project, would you need to bring tools with you to put it back together?
I wouldn't do that.
Having a copy in your luggage wouldn't hurt.
Only a small screwdriver. Most of everything else is micro usb or other similar connections. There are lots of places to pick up the small screwdriver en route to the event, so i'm not worried about tools. I just want to carry the boards with me so i know they won't be snapped in transit or something else equally horrible.
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Old May 22, 18, 11:13 am
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I often travel for work (mostly international, various interesting continents) with lots of pro (clearly non-consumer) electronics and devices in my carryon. If you really need something for important work, it must be in your carryon, checked bag or shipped may well not be there when you get there. A few bad experiences checking bag and shipping customs issues made me a carryon-only traveler (which has many other benefits, too).

I have found that placing the electronics in the bag in single layer, not overlapping each other, minimizes the chance of extra checks, as the Xray operator can see neatly and clearly what is inside, item by item. I usually pack in 3 layers: clothes at bottom, then electronics, then non-electronic travel items.

Sometimes when they see a larger than normal amount of electronics they will ask me to take all or some of it out I pack each set of things in separate zip-lock plastic bag so they are easy to take out, see and put back in (for work or at the airport). Often when they ask this, they are genuinely amazed how much stuff comes out of my bag ;-)

Definitely bring along a printed event flyer, meeting information, your participation information printed out, conference program with your name on it, etc. it will help describe the situation in case they have questions. A few times having some papers about what I'm doing has saved the day at the airport.

Good luck. Post some photos of your stuff in this thread when you get there...
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Old May 22, 18, 1:24 pm
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Someone else suggested 'take a copy of Make: magazine with you'. Well... who does print copies anymore? Oh well. i do have some hard copy Communications of the ACM i can take with me. Almost as good
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Old May 23, 18, 9:00 am
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I think the most useful advice is to pack it all nearly. Coil your cables and use velcro or twist cable keepers. Stack the components neatly. A camera bag with movable dividers can be very helpful in keeping your components organized and making them look innocuous. I actually created an insert tray for a carry-on size roller bag, which I use for all of my electronics (camera gear, computer, tablet, phone, batteries, chargers, cables, and even a power strip and extension cord). I am firmly convinced that I've never had a hand inspection of that bag solely because its contents are stacked neatly and can be seen easily in the x-ray.

There is another wrinkle, however - there is an intermittent policy in place that all electronics larger than a cell phone must be removed from bags for individual inspection, so any of your components that are bigger than a phone should be packed to facilitate easy removal in case it becomes necessary. It sounds like all of your components are smaller than a phone, so you probably won't need to take them out, but it always pays to be prepared.
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Old May 29, 18, 8:06 am
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In true TSA style... what got me stopped was not the electronics... it was my event water bottle on the way back. It was metal.
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