Better Imaging May Be Best Hope For Shorter Checkpoint Lines

Key to speeding up the passenger screening process, in particular, will be using millimeter wave technology for whole body imaging.


More precise, clearer imaging is on the way for passenger and bag screening, which will help both airports and airlines avoid the kinds of situations they especially detest -- slow checkpoint processing, long passenger lines and flight delays.

Key to speeding up the passenger screening process, in particular, will be using millimeter wave technology for "whole body imaging," says Rick Rowe, CEO of Santa Clara, Calif.-based SafeView. This will enable screeners to pull someone aside quickly and do a more "directed search," because they will have already identified and located a hidden object.

Several other officials in the aviation security industry say Rowe is essentially correct about the promise of millimeter wave. But it still has some hurdles to leap over.

Generally speaking, airport screening is finally on the cusp of catching up with the renaissance of research and development that has been under way in screening and detection for several years. But what airports mostly have in place -- with the exception now of a few trace portal machines here and there -- reflects the federal government's spending spree shortly after 9/11, which relied on technology that already had been around for years.

Moreover, the conventional wisdom in the aviation industry and on Capitol Hill is that there is relatively little more that can be done with the human element in screening. Significant improvement really rests with the next- generation screening technology still waiting in the pipeline.

Standard magnetometers, for example, just beep if something is found somewhere on a person. Usually, because of the tight quarters most airport checkpoints have been squeezed into, and the linear nature of their layouts, passengers who set off an alarm force the rest of the queue to wait. Even if a person is pulled aside for a secondary scan and the line can move, the search for the detected object has to start all over again. In most cases, screeners don't really know what they're looking for, or where exactly it is. Multiplied by hundreds of passengers and false alarms, this is a tremendous waste of time and resources, Rowe says.

Moreover, the imprecision of today's zone metal detectors provide an advantage to would-be terrorists. This is because someone could use an innocuous metal object as a distraction from something else more serious, Rowe explains to Air Safety Week.

But with whole body imaging made possible by millimeter wave technology, screeners will quickly identify the object -- be it a cell phone, PDA or something hazardous -- under someone's clothes, and also immediately learn where to look.

Another problem with conventional magnetometers is that they only detect metal. In an "active" millimeter wave scanning system, a radio frequency signal is transmitted, which reflects off the contours of a person's body and any objects they may have in their pockets or strapped on. The reflected signal is then translated into an image. So, an object of any type of material can be detected.

Active millimeter wave also should be especially useful in identifying improved explosive devices -- a hot issue these days in the security community. Because trace detection machines identify known chemicals, they won't work as more explosive systems are rigged from novel materials. That's where whole body imaging will be useful, because it reveals objects that people obviously have taken some pains to hide, Rowe says.

There is no whole body imaging in use yet in U.S. aviation. Besides SafeView's work in Iraq -- where Rowe and his technicians have been assisting the U.S. military -- such imaging is in use at the Mexico City Airport (MEX). SafeView is still awaiting word from TSA to begin a U.S. domestic pilot program.

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