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Beyond x-ray machines: airports test alternative technologies for checkpoints.

Under fire for deficient airport security systems, the Transportation Security Administration has been busy lab testing technologies to beef up passenger screening checkpoints and moving numerous devices into pilot programs across the country.

Such an influx of screening systems marks a coming of age in the security industry. It is a boon for agencies such as TSA, which has long been in search of machines that are capable of meeting the rigorous demands of airport operations.

Technology that might have been dismissed a few years ago because it wasn't quite mature enough is being reexamined by TSA, says Mike Golden, chief technology officer who joined the agency last December. He previously worked at Southwest Airlines as senior director of airport security technologies.

"I came at a great time when the technology was starting to mature more," he says.

Manufacturers and a large portion of overseas countries have been investing in research and development efforts for advancing screening technologies.

TSA revisited those systems and saw enough improvement that officials decided it was time to start replacing older machines in the field. So-called "advanced technology" systems not only give airport security personnel a boost today, but they also will have greater longevity as their abilities to accommodate upgrades has improved, says Golden.


Because of the rapidly evolving terrorist threats to commercial aviation, TSA is examining baggage and passenger screening technologies that can adapt quickly to changing security requirements in airports.

The latest threat--liquid explosives--has exposed a gap at passenger security checkpoints. Critics say the magnetometers that screen individuals for metal and the X-ray machines that peer into carry-on bags for weapons have become ineffective against would-be terrorists who have turned to other materials to elude authorities. Analysts have criticized the agency for being slow to deploy systems that detect potentially hazardous materials beyond conventional weapons.

"Current technologies do not provide the screeners a high degree of success in finding what they're looking for," says Douglas R. Laird, president of Laird and Associates Inc., a security consulting firm. "If you have components to an improvised explosive device, you are not going to find them with an X-ray machine--it just doesn't provide enough detail."

Such criticism has not fallen upon deaf ears. Since the foiled terrorist plot last year in London to destroy transatlantic airliners en route to the United States, TSA has been scrambling to find and test machines that can detect explosives in liquids.

Working with the Department of Homeland Security's science and technology directorate, TSA attained a commercial product that the military has deployed overseas for explosives detection. The manufacturer, ICx Technologies Inc., modified the handheld device for use at airport checkpoints.

Called the Fido PaxPoint, the liquid explosives detector continuously samples the air for vapors and gives screeners the ability to scan bottles without having to open containers. It has been tested at several airports, including Boston's Logan International and Los Angeles International.

"It's been hugely successful for us," says Golden.

The agency also is testing the Sabre 4000, a commercial handheld product that is being used extensively overseas, he says. It comes with two features. Operators can swab suspicious items and place the swab into the machine for results in six seconds, or they can use the device to sniff for vapors.

The vapor capability is being tested by TSA, but the swab feature is in operation at select airports. The device's portability allows screeners to take the unit outside of a security checkpoint and onto a plane to look for explosives, if necessary.

"Being mobile is a huge advantage for us," says Golden. "Both these units, by being handheld, give us a real ability to be flexible and nimble within the checkpoint."

TSA is gathering data on these two devices, and so far they're exceeding expectations, he says. TSA plans to purchase 200 Fido units for distribution to the nation's busiest airports this fall.

The technology, however, is not infallible, says Laird. If a glass bottle, for example, has been cleaned, vapors may not emanate from the container.

If there's no vapor, there are no particles for the detector to sniff, he says.

Still, deploying the devices is better than having nothing at the checkpoint for liquids, analysts say. But having liquid explosives detectors in place won't mean that TSA plans to withdraw its 3-1-1 policy any time soon. Passengers still will be limited to 3-ounce bottles of liquids that are carried in a single one-quart bag inside carry-on baggage for the foreseeable future.

"With 3-1-1, all the liquids are in one place and I can just look for exceptions," says Golden.

Currently, there are more than 1,000 X-ray machines deployed at checkpoints.

But a bottle of water looks exactly the same to those X-ray machines as does a bottle of liquid explosive, says TSA spokesperson Amy Kudwa.

While TSA is deploying the handheld devices and other technologies to checkpoints to improve detection capabilities, there are more than 2,000 other security screening lanes that the agency needs to address.

"We can't roll back policy that is a very valid security measure until we have something everywhere," she adds.

Robert Poole, director of transportation studies at Reason Public Policy Institute says, "I think what they have so far as a procedure is a good stopgap, but it's a big inconvenience for travelers. The nice thing would be to be able to pack liquids the way we used to pack them--in our luggage, and not have to take them out and not have them in the little containers."

TSA is continuing to look for technologies that will allow passengers to leave liquids inside carry-on bags.

"As of this particular second, there's not that one silver bullet technology out there that allows us to do that," says Golden. "We're certainly striving in that direction, and all our resources and testing are looking to make it a better customer service experience going through the checkpoint."

Earlier this year, the head of TSA, Kip Hawley, told reporters that the 3-1-1 policy could be rolled back as early as Labor Day next year. But Golden says that it's going to be a while before the agency is able to make any strides to change the policy.


"The technology is just not quite there yet. But I have high hopes," he says.

MXF Technologies in College Park, Md., says it has developed an X-ray system that not only can distinguish liquid explosives from water, but also can identify the substance.

Using monochromatic X-ray beams and filters with multi-energy coated optics, the system produces high contrast images of screened items.

The mirrors inside the filter act as a crystal does with a light beam by separating the X-ray beams into different energy levels. As the beam passes through a liquid, the spectral signature of the substance can be detected and then algorithms can quickly match it to an explosive.

The technology is an improvement over X-ray machines in use at checkpoints, says Michael Champ, executive vice president of the company. Those machines use polychromatic X-rays, which yield less precise images that require screeners to open up bags to visually identify questionable items.

"It's not a way to detect explosive material," says Champ. The best way is to use a mixture of X-ray energies to help determine the chemical composition of an unknown substance without physically inspecting the bag.

The company says it can build a system to scan bottles and determine what liquid is inside them in a matter of seconds. The system would cost $100,000 to $150,000. Its filters could be retrofitted onto current X-ray technologies, says Champ. They also could scan non-liquid substances for explosives, which would be an improvement to carry-on screening technologies, he adds.

X-ray machines for carry-on bags do not screen for explosives, unlike the inline explosive detection systems (EDS) that inspect checked luggage.

"Having a different standard of explosives inspection for carry-ons and checked luggage has always been a glaring inconsistency," says Poole.

To begin to close the gap, TSA in August deployed three explosive detection systems for side-by-side pilot program testing at three airports--Reagan National, Albuquerque and JFK International. The systems, made by L-3 Communications, Rapiscan Systems and Smiths Detection employ enhanced imaging X-ray technologies to give TSA screeners a way to locate and identify suspicious items inside carry-on baggage.

"Those are multi-view systems. They have multiple X-ray generators so we have much better viewing of the articles going through," says Golden.

The advanced technology will become the backbone for airport security checkpoints moving forward, he adds. Such systems will have upgradeable software.

Computed tomography-based systems, which use X-rays to produce 3-D images, would complement the technology at the passenger screening checkpoint, he says. Reveal Imaging Technologies Inc. and Analogic Corp. have produced automated explosives screening systems that have been reduced in size and cost, company officials say. These two systems were deployed to Manchester-Boston Regional Airport and Cleveland's Hopkins International Airport, respectively, for testing. Additional units from both vendors will be tested in the coming months, says Kudwa.

The systems, if effective, could allow TSA to consolidate screening resources at smaller airports that don't have EDS installed. Airports that have only a few flights per day screen checked luggage with explosive trace detection machines, which critics have claimed are poor substitutes for EDS.

The smaller CT-based systems being tested could potentially screen both checked and carry-on baggage, says Golden.

Another weakness in aviation security is the lack of passenger screening beyond metal detectors.

"All this brouhaha about the liquids, it's nonsensical because all you need to do is put it in a baggie and strap it to your leg, and they can't find it," says Laird. "I've been a real proponent of body scanning because I think that's the only way you can really ensure the safety of the plane."

Poole agrees that body scanning ought to be a part of the TSA checkpoint procedures. There are many ways that a suicide bomber, in particular, could have plastic explosives and other non-metallic conforming materials, such as ceramic knives, concealed beneath clothing, he says.

TSA has implemented a pilot program in Phoenix's Sky Harbor International Airport for testing a backscatter X-ray system, which allows screeners to see beneath passengers' clothing for hidden weapons and explosives.

Backscatter X-ray technologies yield such precise images of the human body that privacy concerns have been raised.

"It seems to me we should get over such silliness," says Laird. "At the end of the day, if you want to keep explosives off the plane, you have to body scan."

Authorities in the United Kingdom have deployed such technologies at airports, and studies have shown that when given a choice between a physical pat-down or a body scan, passengers opt for the computer screening.

In the pilot program at Phoenix, individuals also have elected to go through the backscatter scanner rather than receiving the pat-down from TSA officers, says Golden.

"You can't be squeamish and have prudery get in the way of effective security," says Poole.

TSA is preparing to launch pilot programs at airports to test two other systems based on millimeter wave technology, which generates images from radiation reflected from the body by using non-ionizing electromagnetic waves.

Kudwa says TSA will begin testing millimeter wave imaging machines, as well as additional backscatter machines, at airport security checkpoints in Phoenix, Los Angeles and New York's JFK in the coming months.

The other millimeter wave technology is a stand-off detection system made by QinetiQ. The tripod-mounted SPO-20 is connected to a video display.

Operators point the device at individuals to scan through outer garments to look for weapons and explosives. A red and green light indicator alerts screeners to the presence of dangerous items.

"It gives us some great opportunities to start to push the security away from the 15 to 30 feet that we have within the security checkpoint," says Golden. The device, which can scan from as far away as 25 meters, could be used in airport lobbies and mass transit entrances. TSA tested the product at Amtrak's Union Station in Washington, D.C., and at a Staten Island ferry terminal in New York City. A smaller unit has been developed, but has not yet been tested.

The agency also is in the final phase of testing a cast and prosthesis scanner, which can peer through bandages and other medical dressings with backscatter X-ray technology. It's been in place in pilot programs at San Jose, Tampa and Reagan National airports. TSA will deploy 75 to 100 of these machines at key airports, says Golden.

Space is limited at security checkpoints, and smaller scanners that allow screeners more mobility in the area are a bonus.

"We know when we're looking at technology, it has to be something that's as flexible as possible," says Golden. That is partly why handheld devices have such appeal. In addition, they are cheaper and can be bought in larger quantities.

Critics have assailed the agency for being slow to adopt technologies they say are readily available.

"I wish I could do it quicker, but it takes a while to get it through the process. It's one that I really can't shortcut," Golden says.

Testing potential technologies in pilot programs at airports gives TSA an ability to evaluate the systems under real-world conditions.

"We're not operating this machinery in a lab with people wearing rubber gloves. This is in an airport, where you have operation anywhere between 18 and 24 hours a day," says Kudwa.

That is where promising technologies, such as the shoe scanners and puffer portals, have hit snags.

"There's always a risk with the technology. That's why, to a lot of people's frustration, we do have to go through the pilots," says Golden.

Staying ahead of threats is another challenge, says Golden. "If I have a great big box in the corner, and a threat comes along, and all of a sudden I have to be looking for something else, how do I put in another box?" That is another reason TSA is turning to handheld devices, especially those that can be retrofitted with additional components or software to meet specific needs. Being able to adjust machines' detection capabilities on the fly and adapt to threats as they occur is key.

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RELATED ARTICLE: TSA prepares to take over responsibility for checking no-fly lists.

The Transportation Security Administration is beginning operational testing of the Secure Flight program, which allows the agency to screen passenger information against government no-fly lists to prevent potential terrorists from boarding airlines.

Under the program, TSA will compare passenger data to federal watch lists and transmit any matches to aircraft operators.

When fully implemented, the effort will relieve commercial airlines of the duty.

"That's a big step forward because right now the airlines don't get complete access to all of the names," says Robert Poole, director of transportation studies at Reason Public Policy Institute, a nonprofit organization headquartered in Los Angeles.

Comparing passenger data to watch lists should be the government's responsibility, not the airlines', says Douglas R. Laird, president of Laird and Associates Inc., a security consulting firm. "But I think they've lost sight of the fact that on 9/11, CAPPS, the program we devised at Northwest, identified 10 of the hijackers." The airlines have used a system called CAPPS, Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening System, to cull persons of interest based upon information submitted when passengers purchase tickets. If flagged by the system, selectees would have their checked luggage scrutinized more closely by airline personnel and detained until they boarded their planes.

Many of the 10 hijackers identified by CAPPS on 9/11 had their checked luggage held until they boarded the planes.

After 9/11, the government proposed a CAPPS II system to improve the passenger selection process. However, privacy concerns and a scathing Government Accountability Office report led to its cancellation.

Secure Flight is the TSA's second attempt at revamping the system.

But critics say the program may not catch those operating for terrorist organizations.

"They're not going to send over known terrorists whose names and their description and fingerprints are on file," says Laird.


RELATED ARTICLE: Agencies still lacking coordination to handle another 9/11


Aviation security measures have become more stringent since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but a recent report suggests that federal agencies might not be better prepared to handle another major in-flight emergency should it materialize.

The Government Accountability Office in an unclassified report to Congress this summer, said agencies lack a comprehensive document describing their roles and responsibilities for responding to in-flight security threats and what information would be shared amongst the Departments of Homeland Security, Justice, Transportation and Defense. Procedures guiding the interagency coordination process are not uniformly established or shared and some agencies have not documented and applied lessons learned from interagency exercises, the report stated.

The GAO examined how agencies handled in-flight threats that transpired in 2005. A small percentage of these threats, which ranged from unruly or intoxicated passengers to passengers smoking in lavatories, were deemed serious enough to divert the aircraft from its original destination.

"Problems included misunderstandings of other agencies' roles and responsibilities and untimely information sharing--due in part to a lack of clear policies and procedures," the GAO wrote.

None of the threats resulted in a hijacking, possibly due to improved in-flight policies aboard airlines, such as locked cockpit doors and air marshals.

"I don't think taking control of an airliner in flight is much of a threat these days," says Robert Poole, director of transportation studies at Reason Public Policy Institute, a nonprofit organization headquartered in Los Angeles.

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Comment:Beyond x-ray machines: airports test alternative technologies for checkpoints.(AVIATION SECURITY)
Author:Jean, Grace
Publication:National Defense
Date:Oct 1, 2007
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