Using Facial Recognition

Using Facial Recognition

Improving operations and security in the airport setting

Airports are unique places. They are accessed by thousands of people every day. Few other facilities in the world have to screen so many individuals for personal and environmental safety while providing a positive experience. Further, the challenge is not static. As new threats and requirements emerge, the security challenges associated with airports continue to evolve.

Fortunately, advances in artificial intelligence mean airport personnel are now able to leverage an asset they have in great number to respond: security cameras. By bringing facial recognition and other forms of computer vision to these cameras, airport leaders are able to identify security threats much earlier than before, as well as opportunities for improving operations that previously required much greater effort and cost. In terms of security, these same solutions provide a clear picture of who is coming through their facility by instantly detecting and matching faces to watchlists containing persons of concern and missing persons in real time.

For operations, today’s AI-powered facial recognition solutions for live video give insights into how individuals are moving through the space and enable much faster access.

With access to greater understanding, airports are able to make data-driven decisions that augment their security infrastructure, enhance passenger experiences, increase operational efficiency, and streamline after-incident investigations.


Airport security advancements have focused on keeping passengers and flight crew safe on airplanes. Strict policies and improved scanning technologies have been implemented in airports around the world to mitigate the risk of in-flight terrorism. While these programs have been successful, there remain other security challenges that are not yet being fully addressed. In fact, when looking at aviation terrorism more generally, research shows that there has been no decrease over the years in the frequency of ground attacks at airports.

Consider the 2016 attacks on airports in Belgium and Istanbul. The Zaventem airport in Brussels was attacked on March 22, when suicide bombers detonated explosives in their suitcases while standing in the check-in line. Three months later, on June 28, gunmen opened fire at an X-ray scanner in the Atatürk airport before detonating the explosives they were wearing.

In both cases, the attackers took advantage of an existing lan side vulnerability, namely the fact that airport security essentially begins at the checkpoint well inside the building. Until a passenger is processed through that first point, there is no way for security staff to know who is coming through their front door.

The challenge of securing the perimeter is one that SAFR is helping airport operators and law enforcement address by augmenting existing video surveillance systems with facial recognition technology. For airports, facial recognition technology can help manage watchlists, alert personnel to unauthorized individuals in secured areas, and locate and reconnect lost family members.


When it comes to responding quickly to terrorist attacks, facial recognition can support security staff by providing them with increased visibility and situational awareness. When you consider that today’s airport security systems extend all the way to the edge of the parking lot, you can understand the potential benefits of facial recognition technology. If that system is able to identify and match potential threats to watch lists and other databases, it can prevent serious incidents from happening.

Facial recognition can also help prevent future attacks when it is integrated into the post-event investigative workflow. By working at incredible speeds to quickly identify anyone who attackers have interacted with, this technology can provide investigators with new insights as well as identify possible collaborators and other persons of concern.

For example, during the investigation into the November 2015 attacks in Paris, the authorities were able to identify collaborators using facial recognition and prevent further acts of terror.


If an incident occurs, it is crucial that airport security be able to quickly identify and find the individuals involved. This is where facial recognition can make a big difference. Working with AI allows security personnel to search for identified individuals both historically and in real time.

When combined with traditional video surveillance, facial recognition technology allows security staff to ask the system for all video clips that include a person of concern. Being able to do this across multiple video feeds can provide a rapid view of everywhere someone has been within the airport.

The ability to track and locate persons of concern quickly enables security personnel to respond decisively. Depending on the nature of the event, this can help stop or contain an evolving situation.

Once an incident is over, security personnel, law enforcement, and others shift their focus to investigation. At this point, facial recognition technology can provide a clear picture of where persons of concern have been, who they interacted with, and how long they were in the airport. This can help investigators understand what led up to an event, who was involved, and if further investigation or identification of collaborators is required. Seamless Curb-to-Gate Access

Airport function has expanded. Once seen as purely functional, airports now focus on revenue generation across range of economic activity beyond flights, including tailored consumer experiences. Every minute a traveller saves from a faster line, is another minute they are able to enjoy an airport’s retail offerings.

When passengers don’t have to stand in line waiting to checkin or get their boarding pass, they are less frustrated and spend more time—and often more money—in restaurants or at the duty free. Because they are one of the primary revenue streams for airports, offering more and better services makes economic sense.

To ensure an easier journey, airports are now considering biometric technologies. The idea is that, in essence, your face could be your boarding pass. You could walk up to a kiosk, be recognized, and then be directed to your gate—100 feet to the left.

While this technology has not yet been fully implemented, there are currently a number of airports around the world that are undergoing major renovations to be able to provide this experience. And we are excited to be helping airports along this path.


In 2019, SAFR was one of 12 solutions accepted into in a Biometric rally held by the US Department of Homeland Security. The rally was a hands-on competition based on a set of pre-established performance criteria about how quickly you could process a passenger through a check-point. There were two components: (1) getting an optimal image of the face for facial recognition and (2) matching that face against the database. SAFR (code-name Jarvis) came in second, well ahead of the industry’s largest players.

When it comes to facilitating curb-to-gate access, having capabilities around rapid biometric acquisition and matching will be crucial for providing the seamless passenger experience that airports want to deliver. Faster and lower-frustration traveller journey is good for travellers, airports and airlines.


How long does it typically take passengers to move through airport check-in and security? Does that vary depending on the time of day or the day of the week? Unfortunately, most airports do not know how long a multi-stage journey through their facilities really takes.

With this information, airports could begin to make operational decisions that keep passengers moving and enhance their overall experience. Reducing bottlenecks can have a positive impact on how passengers feel. It can also improve security by reducing the places where incidents can occur as well as providing personnel with a less cluttered view.

Until now, airports have relied on people-counting applications to get a general sense of where people are at a given time. But, they don’t provide the full picture. With facial recognition technology, airports have access to a wide range of data points as well as a more precise view of what is happening. This can be especially important when you are looking to understand how quickly people move from one place to another.

Before AI-powered facial recognition, you had to extrapolate how quickly people moved from point A to point B by calculating how many people a camera at each location captured within a given time frame. But the system didn’t know how long it took an individual to get from one place to another. Using facial recognition, you can calculate how long it takes a specific person to move through the space.


The challenge here is initially capturing a high-quality reference image of an individual at the start of their journey so that the AI can then identify them again in a second camera later on. Given our world-leading accuracy and performance on live video, we are enabling customers around the world to do just that.

To illustrate, when a face passes by a camera, our platform creates a biometric template, or signature, that is stored temporarily along with the time of day and camera information. When that individual’s face is captured again by another camera later during their journey, the image is then compared to the previously stored face templates. A match between the images then provides the exact duration for that traveller’s journey.

Of course, one of the concerns around facial recognition technology is the perceived invasion of privacy. At SAFR, we understand this and built Privacy By Design into SAFR from the start. For this use-case, the identity of the traveller is kept anonymous as the process does not require matching their face against any databases. Individual privacy is further protected since all face images and templates are automatically deleted from the system at pre-determined intervals, usually between two and 24 hours.


It’s clear that airports are complex environments that require powerful solutions to address their unique needs. They have a broad range of challenges relating to operational efficiency and security. And, with so many assets, systems, and people to safeguard, there’s little room for error.

Our goal at SAFR is to provide the technology that gives airports the actionable data they need to enhance passenger experience and maintain safe environments. With more data and a greater understanding, they can make better informed operational and management decisions while also mitigating risks and responding to events and incidents more effectively.

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2020 issue of Security Today.

About the Author

Dan Grimm is the vice president and general manager of Computer Vision at SAFR.

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