Poked, prodded, and irradiated
US media outlets have been awash with stories about the latest Transportation Security Administration (TSA) faux pas over body scanners in recent months.
The agency announced in mid January that it would replace the much-derided backscatter x-ray scanners deployed at 174 of the larger airports across the country with reputedly safer millimeter wave devices designed to protect passenger privacy.
What it didn’t do was inform the very many smaller airports where the millimeter wave technology is already in use, that it would be ripping out their body scanning kit to enable the replacement programme to go ahead.
Congress forced the switch from one scanning technology to another following considerable disquiet over safety and privacy issues.
The lawmakers originally specified a 1 June 2012 deadline for the two manufacturers of TSA deployed body-scanning hardware, Rapiscan and L3, to retrofit their equipment with suitable privacy software. This deadline was subsequently extended to June 1 2013, mainly to give Rapiscan more time to comply. It ultimately informed TSA that it wouldn’t be able to do so at the start of the year.
The millimeter wave body scanners, some of which having been deployed for only a few months, are installed at 49 airports across the country. Airport managers have complained vociferously about the equipment being hauled away with limited or zero notice.
Officials at one Montana airport threatened agency contractors with arrest when they turned up to remove the L3 scanners installed in a terminal expensively remodeled at taxpayer expense to accommodate them.
Regional airports say that the decision to transfer their body scanning hardware will result in increased delays, more pat-downs and decreased overall security of the national aviation system. TSA said in a statement that it would cost about $2.5 million to remove the machines from the 49 smaller airports and reinstall them at bigger facilities.
Rapiscan’s parent company added that it will face a one-time charge of $2.7 million to cover the money spent trying to develop software to meet mandated privacy requirements whilst moving body scanning machines between airports.
The agency’s sudden fondness for all things millimeter wave may well be premature since reaction to the hardware on this side of the pond is perhaps best described as mixed.
European airport operators cite excessively high false alarm rates as the principal drawback and given that few alternatives are available, have effectively been forced into seeking complimentary personal search hardware solutions, or reverting to manpower that has potentially higher operational cost.
One of these complimentary systems utilises Thermo Conductive Infra-Red technology to rapidly resolve false positive results.
This type of screening is considerably less invasive than a physical pat down, has non of the health or privacy issues that have dogged earlier generation body scanning hardware and readily locates a vast array of contraband concealed under passenger clothing.
Defender 921 from hardware systems supplier Broughton Controls has been garnering much interest from United Kingdom airport operators. This mini portal Thermo Conductive Infra-Red device has already undergone a highly successful trial at Bristol Airport, during which it was able to identify the full gamut of items that might be concealed on the body including weapons, powders, tobacco, gems, precious metals and other items while operating in a smaller footprint and at a lower cost.
The Bristol Airport test was organised by the independent test and evaluation service ICTS VeriSys under the technical guidance of Marian Langford, a science advisor at the service. VeriSys trained five screeners at Bristol Airport to use the technology to scan hundreds of passengers during the trial. She said: “The mini‑portal performed well as a standalone scanner and as an adjunct to the larger existing system. Almost forty percent of passengers said they actively disliked pat-downs, or said that they would prefer to be screened by a portal.”
Defender 921 will soon undergo a further operational trial with Manchester Airport Group (MAG) at one of its key facilities. The airports operator is understood to be keen to find a relatively inexpensive but highly accurate means to verify that travelers are not carrying contraband.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has talked for years about its vision of the checkpoint of the future. It now says that it hopes passengers will be able to breeze through a checkpoint non-stop within the next decade.
There’s no doubt that the current architecture employed to keep us safe is well past its sell by date and in need of rapid innovation. The number of passengers screened in an average hour at the average airport has fallen markedly during the past twelve years. With passenger numbers constantly climbing, it’s very evident that gridlock is just around the corner unless new security solutions are found.
IATA’s vision is a checkpoint harnessing advanced biometrics to verify identity and standoff screening solutions to make security clearance a much more streamlined and better experience.
Many of the technologies required to achieve this once lofty goal are actually available in one guise or another today, but will take time to filter into the aviation environment.
The trace explosive detectors of today might be replaced by standoff overt or covert laser scanning. Laser Optical Engineering utilises this method to accurately identify the tiniest particles of explosive material, without anyone having to come into contact with a machine.
These are visionary solutions that could ultimately help in deliver the long held desire expressed by the aviation industry to take the hassle out of flying. L