Industry Insight

A Clear Detection

FOR passengers who've traveled through an airport recently, it's fairly obvious what might be improved at today's passenger checkpoints -- the long lines. All the while, time is ticking away for departing flights, and that's just focusing on the inconvenience factor.

A more fundamental challenge with today's airport checkpoints and one of paramount concern to those responsible for running and securing airports -- especially in light of the foiled terror plot in the United Kingdom that dominated the news for much of last month -- is reliably identifying potential threats.

A more fundamental challenge with today's airport checkpoints and one of paramount concern to those responsible for running and securing airports -- especially in light of the foiled terror plot in the United Kingdom that dominated the news for much of last month -- is reliably identifying potential threats. While security staff around the world labor admirably with the current state of technology, there are concerns about the limits of what it is able to accomplish.

A New Paradigm for Passenger Screening
GE's Checkpoint of the Future takes advantage of networking and remote monitoring to integrate airport screening operations, creating a comprehensive view of threats individual passengers may pose.

Beginning with a passenger's first interaction at the airport -- curbside bag check, ticket counter or boarding pass kiosk -- data from integrated sensors build an individual security picture for each passenger. Any indications of potential threats not only identify the passenger for further screening, but also alert additional sensors the passenger, or his or her bags, might encounter to provide more detailed scrutiny.

With the Checkpoint of the Future, when a passenger checks bags at curbside, goes to a ticket counter or uses a boarding pass kiosk, he or she presses a button to begin the desired transaction. Using the ItemiserFX trace detector, the passenger's finger is immediately analyzed for the possible presence of any explosives residues.

As the passenger reaches the checkpoint, carry-on baggage goes through a computed tomography-based scanner, giving it the same scrutiny checked bags are subjected to elsewhere at the airport to detect potential threats. While carry-on bags are screened, the passenger steps into a millimeter wave-based device and then onto a ShoeScanner. Together, the devices scan for the presence of any forbidden objects on the body or in the shoes. And, combined with the explosives detection scanning data from the ItemiserFX, a total security picture is created for each passenger. And the best part about the whole process: it all happens in about 20 seconds.

Advanced Technologies Take Off
Tested technologies, such as trace, incorporated into existing products -- in this case, the Itemiser FX finger-sampling device -- contributes to a new way of looking at checkpoint passenger screening.

Explosives in a variety of forms constantly give off microscopic particles. These particles transfer easily to people and also to surfaces that come into physical contact with either a contaminated person or item. Trace detection is based on the premise that when a person handles contraband substances -- explosives included -- tiny particles are left on their hands and bodies. These invisible particles leave identifiable traces on the hands, clothing and other articles touched by anyone who handles them.

Basically odorless, these particles become embedded in the skin with the same stickiness as fish oil, onions, gasoline and other substances difficult to wash away. Once contaminated, a person can unknowingly transfer trace particles to anything they touch. Thus, trace detection can help detect explosives where other methods, particularly those that rely on visual detection, may fail.

With the introduction of ItemiserFX, direct sampling of individuals becomes a possibility. A gentle touch of a fingertip to a reusable pad replaces the use of traps and swabs, and allows analysis of individuals for contraband substances. This direct transfer of threat substances to the instrument offers the possibility of improved detection. This same technology also is used in portals that give off gentle puffs of air to dislodge particles, which then are carried by the natural convection plume of warm air around a human body into a trace instrument that analyzes for the presence of explosives.

Advanced Computed Tomography (CT) technology is already seen in airports throughout the world where it's used for checked baggage inspection. GE Security produces its CTX explosives detection systems based on CT technology and hopes to leverage this experience -- and the related imaging technology -- to bring checked-bag-like levels of digital processing to the screening of carry-on bags.

Millimeter wave, a newer technology and one not yet in use at checkpoints, might be used to identify a more comprehensive array of potential threats carried on passengers' bodies than is possible with the current state of security technology. Active millimeter wave leverages common RF signals that reflect off of objects at low-signal levels. These signal levels are many times smaller than similar signals used by cell phones or garage door openers and meet known health standards, yet they offer the potential to identify difficult to detect threat objects.

Currently available millimeter wave products are largely manual in nature, requiring operators to review detailed images of each passenger screened. GE scientists are working to bring the same levels of automation to millimeter wave that are enjoyed by other advanced screening technologies, so that this promising technology can make a difference at the Checkpoint of the Future.

Quadrupole Resonance technology, or QR, the technology underlying GE's ShoeScanner, offers the potential to identify shoe-borne threats. Advanced Quadrupole Resonance technology uses RF magnetic fields to excite and detect specific atoms of explosive materials.

Looking to the Future
In the not-too-distant future, it's hoped that the security checkpoint will provide comprehensive threat detection, including the possibility of much enhanced detection of explosives. It's also hoped that it will offer a lower total cost of operation because of automation and increased screener productivity. And, just as important, it will provide a dramatically improved passenger experience.

This article originally appeared in the September 2006 issue of Security Products, pg. 14.


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