New airport scanner gives TSA clearer view of bags

For travelers, it is simply a machine with a blue hood and two conveyor belts that gets them through the checkpoint at BWI Airport a bit faster and without the hassle of removing laptops, 3-ounce bottles or quart bags from their carry-ons.

"It's nice because I don't have to take out my laptop each time," Connie Steller of Louisville, Ky., said Wednesday as she headed to a Southwest Airlines flight.

For Transportation Security Administration officers, it is the COBRA Checkpoint Explosives and Weapons Detection System, an automatic explosive detection system that uses CT scanning to reduce the number of bags they have to open in the ongoing search for explosives and other threatening items.

"The technology is far ahead of the other machines we have," said Joe Salvator, TSA deputy federal security director at the airport.

The agency unveiled the machine last week at BWI Thurgood Marshall for a 30- to 60-day test period.

According to the TSA, the Auto-EDS uses computed tomography X-ray - a CT scan - combined with special software to identify potential dangers. The technology resembles whole-body CT scans used in health care. With this machine, it is your belongings, not your person, being scanned.

Current technology examines items in carry-on luggage in a top-down process, resulting in 2-D images. This differs from the new technology, which provides a 3-D look. The machine's operators can rotate and slice the 3-D image on the display screen in different ways, said Amy Kudwa, spokesman for TSA. Operators look for anomalies on the screen to determine if they need to open and search a bag.

The machine has two conveyor belts. One takes the bins with carry-on luggage through the CT scanner and out the other side, where the bins are emptied by travelers. The other belt is below, running in the opposite direction of the top belt, to bring the empty bins back to the start of the belt. Unless the bins get jammed, there is no need for an operator to return them to passengers.

BWI's Auto-EDS is one of only three currently in use around the United States. The other two are in Cleveland, Ohio, and Manchester, N.H.

TSA has bought 20 of the machines, each costing $300,000 to $450,000. Twelve machines, including BWI's, are made by Analogic of Peabody, Mass., and eight by Reveal Imaging Technologies of Bedford, Mass. Reveal's are called Fusion.

COBRA can scan approximately 400 bags per hour, according to the manufacturer.

Ms. Kudwa said the timing of the test program was an important factor. It comes before the peak travel times for the November and December holidays.

"We do a lot of planning going into holidays," said Ms. Kudwa. "That's why we're not installing it a week before the holidays," she said.

The Auto-EDS needs four operators per shift, and some 50 operators were trained two weeks ago, said Mr. Salvator. The TSA would not say if the machine has detected explosives or threatening items.

On average, it takes passengers three minutes from the time they get in line for the COBRA until they are get their items on the other side. The older machines, still in operation at the checkpoint, take a few minutes longer, Mr. Salvator said.

"The whole point of the pilot is to see how effective it is and if it increases efficiency," Mr. Salvator said.

Jerry Trout, of Tucson, Ariz., didn't know the machine was any different than the others. But upon finding out, he was intrigued by the machine's looks and curious about how its technology worked.

"I didn't know this was a new machine. I am glad to be among the trial period," he said, as he took a closer look at the COBRA.