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.

Despite its advantages over today's archaic body scanning techniques, the images provided by millimeter wave or backscatter X-ray still must be interpreted by a human security agent, says Mark Laustra, vice president of transportation for Smiths Detection, part of Smiths Group [SMGKF.PK]. The broad goal in the transportation security community, including TSA, is to make security systems as automated as possible, while depending less and less on human involvement.

Millimeter wave also has several technical issues to be worked out before it can be deployed in an aviation environment, says Peter Kant, vice president of government affairs for Rapiscan Systems. And once it is ready, the technology will garner the same kind of controversy over privacy issues as the backscatters have.

Rowe agrees that the human factor remains a key variable in designing better checkpoint efficiency. Any technology that makes detection quicker and easier will enable human screeners to gain greater control over the security process.

But airport checkpoints are always going to have a human operator referencing information on a screen, says Bill Frain, senior vice president with L-3 Communications [LLL]. That's why his firm is still investing up to $25 million annually in research and development, while working on new software algorithms to yield better on-screen image resolutions and lower the false alarm rate.

The other big development for checkpoints of the future -- a veritable "holy grail" for much of the aviation security industry -- will be combining several technologies into one device. Some call it "checkpoint in a box," while others, like Laustra, like the term, "Tunnel of Truth." Not only will one system combine and interpret several types of data for more definitive results, but the hardware will take up far less space. That was certainly an issue recently for Smiths, which just installed of couple of its trace portals at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA). There was barely any room at DCA for one of the new devices.

Rapiscan, like Smiths and other security firms, believes that a combined system is the most important development coming down the pike to improve checkpoint efficiency. Today, passengers often first go through a magnetometer, then perhaps a trace portal. Instead of using two primary scanning systems as a primary and a secondary screening system, an all-in-one system will be able to do a primary, secondary, and even a tertiary scan essentially at the same time, Rapiscan's Kant says.

Today with carry-ons, whatever needs a second look must be picked up by a screener after it comes out the back of the machine, then carried back up to the front of the machine, which holds up the line, Kant adds. Rapiscan, for one, is working on a device that will allow screeners to push a button, sending the suspect bag off on another belt for a back-up screening, while the primary belt keeps the main line of bags going through.

At least one other recurrent problem with checkpoint security recently has been solved, Laustra says. Through most of 2005, there were numerous incidents where a threatening object appeared in an X-ray, but could not be connected to any passenger still at the checkpoint. That resulted in closed checkpoints, evacuated concourses, and delayed flights. One recent incident that was heavily publicized occurred on Dec. 12 at Long Beach Airport (LGB) in California. Following a suspicious-looking X-ray, a large-scale evacuation ensued, forcing passengers out of the terminal and into a nearby parking lot. A similar incident just occurred Jan. 15 at San Franciso Int'l (SFO).

The problem behind a lot of these incidents has been the threat image projection (TIP) system that TSA uses in screener training, Laustra tells Air Safety Week. It seems that some of the fake images were coming up on-screen in between all the real images. Toward the end of last year, TSA pretty much corrected the situation nationally with training and some new protocols, he says.

TSA did not respond to Air Safety Week's repeated requests for comment about this development.

But the core reason why such evacuations are bound to continue, Rapiscan's Kant says, is not a technology issue, but a matter of protocol involving TSA personnel and local law enforcement. Screeners can't actually detain people as police can, they can only ask people to stop. Many of the incidents where passengers quickly get beyond the reach of screeners occur quite innocently.

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