Better Imaging May Be Best Hope For Shorter Checkpoint Lines

Jan. 31, 2006
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.

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.

>>Contact: Rick Rowe, SafeView, (408) 961-3690, Mark Laustra, Smiths, (973) 830-2014, [email protected], Peter Kant, Rapiscan, 703-812-0322, [email protected]<<

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