New Scanners and Conveyors Could Make Airline Security Faster and Safer
The plastic explosive was molded into a thin sheet and hidden inside a laptop, the kind of hard-to-detect bomb that keeps airport security chiefs awake at night.
Terrorist devices such as this are the reason fliers have to remove laptops from carry-on bags at security checkpoints before boarding airplanes. But at a lab in an industrial park outside Boston, a new generation scanner spotted the mock “bomb” hidden in a suitcase within seconds, alerting test 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 detection 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 checkpoints—a 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 potential changes will help address one of airport security’s most glaring weaknesses—the difficulty screeners have in spotting prohibited items hidden in bags or on people. In one test conducted by TSA’s own undercover team, screeners missed 67 out of 70 hidden bombs and weapons, ABC News reported last year.
While officials 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 doesn’t 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 cases, the improvements are relatively low-tech. The TSA, working with airlines that are helping fund the new efforts, has begun experiments in new screening-line techniques borrowed from industrial efficiency experts. They are automating X-ray conveyor belts and altering how people line up to speed lines and make it easier to find prohibited items.
A pilot system in place in Atlanta’s Hartsfield International pushes through about 35 percent more people per hour than a traditional security lane, said Mick MacDonald, a founder and group managing director at MacDonald Humfrey (Automation) Ltd., which built 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 tubs and push them onto the belt—skipping past slow pokes 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 area away from the bustle and distractions of the screening areas. Each lane won’t need an officer at the X-ray machine during slow periods. And if one bag requires extra scrutiny, the conveyor belt can continue to run and a computer will send the next image to another screener.
“There will be some large 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.
Instead of the two views 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 plane’s 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 using the latest medical-industry technology. The version tested in the Boston-area lab, Integrated Defense & Security Solutions’ Detect 1000, has passed an initial test conducted by the TSA to ensure it can detect explosives and weapons without too many false alarms, according to the agency.
“We’re revolutionizing the detection of explosives at the checkpoint,” Joseph Paresi, IDSS's chief executive officer, said during the demonstration. “It adds an order of magnitude improvement.”
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 grants 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 certified by TSA and European authorities.
Like existing CT scanners used for checked baggage, the machines create such a clear picture of a bag’s contents that computers can automatically detect 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 bags once security agencies see their performance.
The TSA’s Vaughan declined to set a timetable for when the agency might adopt the new devices or whether it would someday eliminate current laptop and liquids restrictions. It needs to certify the machines for everyday use first, she said.
But the security agency relishes the potential for making 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 O’Hare, 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.
“It’s not 100 percent yet, but it’s right around the corner,” he said. “This is much more promising than anything else we’ve seen.”