New Scanners and Conveyors Could Make Airline Security Faster and Safer

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The plastic explosive was molded into a thin sheet and hidden inside a laptop, the kind of hard-to-detect bomb that maintains airport security chiefs awake at night.

Terrorist devices such as this are the reason fliers have to remove laptops from carry-on pouches at security checkpoints before boarding airliners. But at a laboratory in an industrial park outside Boston, a new generation scanner spotted the taunt bomb hidden in a suitcase within seconds, alerting exam screeners by turning its image magenta on a computer.

High-definition, three-dimensional CT scans of luggage may soon replace static X-ray images at airports as part of a wave of new technology designed to speed up security lanes while improving detecting of weapons and explosives.

I think if we can continue momentum the way we have for the past six months or the last year, we have a real opportunity to transform the system, Jill Vaughan, chief technology officer at the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, said in an interview. I am hopeful.

Airport security checkpointsa long-time source of frustration that boiled over earlier this year when lines spiked in the U.S.are set to see dramatic changes from these and other technologies. For the first time since security was ratcheted up after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist hijackings, innovations such as computer-controlled conveyor belts and automated suitcase screening have the potential to improve the convenience of airport security while enhancing security.

The screen of a DETECT 1000 luggage scanner, make use of Integrated Defense& Security Solutions, demonstrates an alerting after seeing something possibly hazardous in a suitcase at its headquarters in Boxborough, Mass ., on Friday, Sept. 30, 2016.
Photographer: Scott Eisen/ Bloomberg

The potential changes will help address one of airport securities most glaring weaknessesthe difficulty screeners have in spotting proscribed items hidden in bags or on people. In one exam conducted by TSAs own undercover team, screeners missed 67 out of 70 hidden bombs and weapons, ABC News reported last year.

While officers at security agencies and aviation trade groups caution that the new devices are still undergoing certification and TSA has been criticized in the past for how it fields new technology, there is optimism that the changes are coming soon. TSA this year notified Congress it doesnt plan to buy any more of the existing X-ray machines and asked Congress to set aside $49 million for next generation scanners.

In some occurrences, the improvements are relatively low-tech. The TSA, working with airlines that are helping money the new endeavours, has begun experimentations in new screening-line techniques borrowed from industrial efficiency experts. They are automating X-ray conveyor belts and altering how people line up to velocity lines and make it easier to find proscribed items.

Illustration by Steph Davidson

A pilot system in place in Atlantas Hartsfield International pushings through about 35 percentage more people per hour than a traditional security lane, said Mick MacDonald, a founder and group managing director at MacDonald Humfrey( Automation) Ltd ., which constructed the lanes.

Instead of queuing up in order of arrival, travelers take an open spot alongside a conveyor belt. They then put their shoes, luggage, keys, and other items into bathtubs and push them onto the beltskipping past slow pokings having trouble removing their shoes. Suspicious luggage is automatically diverted to a special area so it can be searched without having to stop the conveyor belt.

The lane changes are just the start. Companies such as the U.K.s closely held MacDonald Humfrey and Netherlands-based Scarabee Aviation Group have developed automation technology that they say will bring even more efficiency.

Eventually, TSA officers viewing X-ray images of bags will do so in a remote region away from the commotion and distractions of the screening regions. Each lane wont need an officer at the X-ray machine during slow periods. And if one container involves extra scrutiny, the conveyor belt can continue to run and a computer will send the next image to another screener.

There will be some big gains in the next few years, MacDonald said. Things are going to get easier, for sure.

Perhaps the most significant change in these new lines will be the replacement of existing X-ray scanners.

Illustration by Steph Davidson

Instead of the two positions of a bag generated by the current machines, CT scanners shoot hundreds of images with an X-ray camera spinning around the conveyor belt to provide screeners with three-dimensional views.

CT scanners have been used for more than a decade to screen the checked bags that go to a planes cargo hold. An attempt to use the same technology at the screening lanes failed in 2006 because the scanners were too large and loud for public areas.

But the new machines have been shrunk employing the most recent medical-industry technology. The version tested in the Boston-area lab, Integrated Defense& Security Solutions Detect 1000, has passed an initial exam conducted by the TSA to ensure it can see explosives and weapons without too many false alarms, according to the agency.

Were revolutionizing the detection of explosives at the checkpoint, Joseph Paresi, ID’SSs chief executive officer, said during the demonstration. It adds an order of magnitude improvement.

Joseph Paresi, founder, chairwoman, and CEO of IDSS, explains the inside of the DETECT 1000 luggage scanner .
Photographer: Scott Eisen/ Bloomberg

The TSA is conducting a second round of tests this year that will simulate its operation in an airport, Paresi said. A final demonstration in actual screening lanes must be completed before the security agency awards a formal approval.

At least two other companies with experience in bag-screening, Analogic Corp. and L-3 Communications Holdings Inc.s security subsidiary, have also developed CT scan technology systems and are attempting to get them is reflected by TSA and European authorities.

Like existing CT scanners used for checked baggage, the machines generate such a clear picture of a bags contents that computers can automatically see explosives, including liquids.

All three manufacturers of the CT machines said they believe the machines are so much better than existing scanners that people will be able to leave liquids and laptops in their suitcases once security agencies find their performance.

The TSAs Vaughan declined to set a timetable for when relevant agencies might adopt the new devices or whether it would someday remove current laptop and liquids regulations. It needs to certify the machines for everyday use first, she said.

But the security agency relishes the potential for constructing the process more automated and simpler for travelers, she said.

In addition to the pilot lanes open in Atlanta and Los Angeles, the TSA plans to add some in Chicago OHare, Dallas/ Fort Worth, Newark, and Miami. At least 20 airports in such places as London and Amsterdam have already begun similar trials or are planning them, said Guido Peetermans, head of the Smart Security program at the airline trade group, the International Air Transport Association.

Peetermans predicted it will take at least two years before passengers can routinely leave liquids and laptops in bags.

Its not 100 percent yet, but its right around the corner, he said. This is much more promising than anything else weve seen.

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