Evolving Threats

Airport detection must be adaptable, proactive and evolutionary

Since Sept. 11, 2001, all aspects of air security have been a top priority for governments, businesses and the public. New and emerging terrorist threats now necessitate that airport detection be as adaptable, proactive and evolutionary as possible.

Long gone are the days of simple metal detectors and unconcerned passengers. Airport security has become one of the most daunting technological challenges facing experts today.

Because of the nature of evolving threats, no single technology available today is capable of detecting every risk to airlines and passengers. Threats to safety are simply too complex to return to the days of a single metal detector, and a future in which passengers simply breeze past unseen detection devices without slowing their pace is decades away at best.

The Transportation Security Administration has adopted a layered approach to air travel security, on the premise that a combination of varied technologies provides an effective security net.

“By providing specific technologies for specific threats, the layered approach to security is a constantly evolving and adaptable strategy to adequately address ever-changing threats,” said Mark Laustra, vice president of homeland security at Smiths Detection. “Perhaps in the future there will be one system that will be able to detect everything, but for now that goal is still a ways off. We will continue to create the solutions needed today while preparing for the threats we will face tomorrow.”

Screening People
To be effective, airport screening must encompass three categories: people, their belongings and air cargo. First, several overriding requirements exist for peoplescreening technologies. The systems must be safe, speedy, quiet and relatively small because security checkpoint real estate is limited.

When it comes to security solutions, they must be simple and reliable and, above all else, practical. Quick throughput is essential to facilitating the flow of people through security checkpoints. A small physical footprint also is necessary to maximize the floor space where most security checkpoints are located -- the larger the equipment, the more likely a bottleneck.

Weight also is an issue because of floor strength, and smaller, lighter solutions are more likely to fit in the nation’s airports. Once, a simple metal detector fit the bill, but since Richard Reid tried to use his shoes to conceal explosives and the “Underwear Bomber” tried to conceal them on his person, metal detection alone can no longer ensure safety -- it’s only part of the solution.

To address these needs, Smiths Detection launched “eqo,” an advanced peoplescreener that uses electronic imaging in a standard checkpoint layout to detect unexpected anomalies, concealed weapons or explosives on the body. Using harmless millimeter-waves, the system provides a clear, real-time image of the person passing in front of a flat panel while a remote operator checks for any hidden objects.

Because of its small footprint, consistent accuracy and speed, eqo is a promising solution for airport security.

“Our system represents a second generation of people-screeners, providing state-of-the-art, real-time information rather than snapshot images,” Laustra said. “It enables fast throughput and, with our privacy safeguards, is reliable for both passengers and operators. We are excited to see this advanced system implemented worldwide because it addresses so many concerns and solves many checkpoint issues in quick 360-degree turn.”

Screening Personal Belongings
The second category of necessary screening includes carry-on, checked luggage and other belongings. As passengers cram more items into their carry-on baggage, screening those belongings becomes a more difficult task.

In the past, X-ray systems could provide only a single view inside the complex bags, making identifying threats a harder task. It is possible to alleviate these concerns by providing dual views of screened belongings at different angles, helping reveal the true contents of the bags. The systems provide not only advanced X-ray capabilities but revolutionary automatic explosives detection as well, combining the functions of multiple systems with leading engineering to save time and resources.

“Essentially, we are helping the screener identify potential threats in complex bags,” Laustra said. “The automatic threat detection capability is a crucial aspect to this layer of security because it gives the screeners more information about the bags they are scanning. At the end of the day, it saves passengers time because of the increased throughput.”

Building on the automatic detection of explosive threats, DHS officials can opt for a screening system that supplies trace explosives screening technology. Smiths Detection has a new solution, which uses ion mobility spectrometry technology in a desktop configuration, to identify minute traces of explosives with a single swab followed by a rapid analysis. A mobile IMS unit, the multi-mode threat detector, also has been adopted into use by airlines for additional screening at boarding gates, adding another layer of internal security.

In 2006, terrorists were discovered trying to bring liquid explosives onto several different planes in London, and since then, liquids have required additional security screening. Recently, TSA purchased Smiths Detection’s bottle liquid scanner, the RespondeR BLS.

Using a technique known as Raman spectroscopy to assess the liquid contents of bottles without having to open containers or damage them, the system enables screeners to recognize the difference between a potentially harmful liquid and one considered to be safe, such as baby formula.

This additional layer has been aggressively deployed across the nation by TSA and offers a solution to screen liquids for explosives.

Screening Luggage, Cargo
The third category of necessary screening requiring new layers of security includes checked luggage and air cargo.

Following the tragic crash of Pan Am Flight 103, when it was supposed explosives were concealed within checked baggage, and the following TWA Flight 800 disaster, TSA invested heavily in new scanning technology for luggage featuring automatic explosives detection using 3-D imaging.

Airlines also use the empty space on a plane not filled with luggage to transport commerce -- air cargo -- across the country. However, these packages and pallets have come under new scrutiny because they have not traditionally been screened for threats.

TSA issued new screening requirements that went into effect in August, mandating that all air cargo be screened in order to circumvent potential threats that might be hidden within it.

In order to help the air cargo industry abide by this new mandate, transportation security officials are using a variety of security solutions including trace detection and numerous X-ray systems capable of screening from the smallest to the largest of packages and pallets. Some companies use the IONSCAN 500DT explosives trace detection system to swab individual shipments, others use one of Smiths Detection’s 16 TSA-approved X-ray systems, and some use both.

Direct and indirect air carriers and freight forwarders can meet the screening mandate by quickly scanning shipments instead of physically inspecting them one by one, potentially harming the goods. Able to provide the custom solutions needed in each case-bycase basis, Smiths Detection’s pallet-sized X-ray systems -- like its HI-SCAN 180180-2is -- meet the unique volume and throughput needs and applications of a range of businesses including airports, customs facilities, transportation operations, air cargo carriers and parcel services. The system screens big items such as pallets and standard airfreight containers, providing dual views, detailed images and materials identification guidance needed to ensure safety.

Because threats to airline security are evolving, it is important that the screening technologies are upgradeable systems, where advanced algorithms can be developed and simply added to detect for emerging threats. Smiths Detection is encouraging governments and the industry to adopt global safety measurement standards that harmonize security regulations internationally.

This would help expand the layered safety net that faces evolving threats across the globe. It is essential that airport security technology and information become integrated with national law enforcement and anti-terrorist organizations in order to provide the rapid information-sharing needed in a crisis. This integrated technology would allow for synchronized awareness across multiple airports and agencies in such situations. In combination with the multiple layers of screening, information-sharing would create a backbone to connect security efforts worldwide.

Security companies have long used layered security approaches beyond the airport environment, as it also has been proven effective in critical infrastructures, such as government buildings, special events such as large public gatherings and sporting events, and at ports and border crossings around the world.

“Airport security has evolved along with the complexity of the threats we face,” Laustra said. “We hope to provide the best and customized security solutions needed today while also trying to foresee what may be on the horizon to be prepared.”

Airport security will always rely on practiced layers of security for people, baggage and air freight. The solutions of tomorrow will include layers of technology that are quick, unobtrusive, upgradeable, accurate and reliable.

This article originally appeared in the October 2010 issue of Security Today.

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