Commercial airports often resemble small cities, and they come complete with many of the same municipal services, such as fire and police departments, seen in any other town. One big difference between an airport and a city, however, is that airports are typically protected around their perimeters by fences and other security systems designed to guard against various threats. One of the biggest security challenges for airports today is deciding on just which perimeter defensive technologies will work best in an ever-changing threat environment.
Avoid Dumb Fencing
In all cases, airports must keep unauthorized people away from secure areas such as runways, taxiways, ramp areas and other locations where security access badges are required. For airports, wire-topped perimeter security fences of sufficient height (minimum six feet) provide a good first line of defense against those with bad intent, especially when they’re combined with intrusion-detection systems. Perimeter fencing without detection capability, which is known as “dumb fencing,” simply won’t cut it in most airport security situations today, so deciding on the best detection systems to pair with fencing is important.
Perimeter Security Solutions
Many different airport perimeter security solutions are available to complement conventional fencing, including fiber optic and infrared sensors, motion detection and thermal imaging cameras, and ground radar. The latter security measure is often deployed in sterilized zones between two perimeter or barrier fences. Airports looking to bulk up their perimeter defenses can also select terrain-following volumetric sensors, digital microwave and, because this is the 21st century, robotic patrol units operating on monorails mounted to security fencing. Surveillance drones operating at perimeter edges are also relatively new arrivals to the airport security scene. What challenges do airports face when considering improvements to their perimeter defenses, though?
Issues to Consider
Each airport presents its own unique environment when it comes to perimeter defense. Some airports are located next to bodies of water such as oceans or lakes, while others might have perimeters situated on rolling land which could provide cover and concealment to people intent on penetrating security. Other airports abut busy interstates and freeways or may even be sited within a city or near busy neighborhoods. Before selecting any defensive solution, airports are well-advised to first conduct a thorough security or penetrative threat assessment which accounts for their terrain and location.
Costs and Benefits
Since 9/11 airports and government security agencies have done well in increasing security inside their terminals and they should treat improving their perimeter security capabilities with equal seriousness. When choosing from among the array of perimeter security systems available to them, airports must no doubt consider the costs and the benefits each may bring. Motion detection and similar sensor technologies, for example, are mature and proven and they’re often cost-effective, but vibration from taxiing planes, windy conditions and even animals wandering onto airport grounds can increase the risk of false alarms. In areas less visible to conventional or non-enhanced CCTV camera surveillance, such false alarms may have to be visually checked out by security personnel, which could stretch available staff resources and increase costs. Recent technologies such as drone or robotic patrol systems hold out the promise of becoming effective perimeter security solutions but they’re still relatively high-cost and may require additional staff to operate.
Intelligent Perimeter Surveillance
Airports might be able to derive more benefit from intelligent perimeter surveillance solutions than anything else, at least at present. The cost of thermal imaging camera systems has come down, for one, and sometimes greatly so as they’ve become more commercially available. Such systems produce “thermograms” which deliver high-contrast images, making them ideal for rapid video analysis provided by AI-powered crowd movement technology systems. Thermal imaging cameras can often cover rolling terrain, water and other areas difficult to view through standard CCTV. Once a suspected airport perimeter breach is confirmed through video analysis, security personnel can then be quickly dispatched to deal with the issue.
Volumetric Sensor Technology
Airports with perimeters featuring difficult terrain playing host to wildlife populations can also add volumetric sensors calibrated to fine tolerances. When adjusted properly, these sensors are able to distinguish between animals and human intruders, meaning security personnel need only be dispatched to deal with human threats, not the occasional wandering deer or bear or any sort of small animal.
Perimeter security fences are also characterized by entrance and exit gates, usually featuring guards present at some time at each one. Security fence guard costs can be controlled by automating all but the main gate, which is normally staffed 24 hours a day. At automated gates, drivers requesting permission to enter the airport’s secure areas can present their access badges to the security system, which forwards their photos and other authorizing information to security personnel at the main gate. Automating some perimeter fence access gates could help reduce after-hours staff and operating costs.
Secure Inside, Secure Outside
An airport’s security defense is characterized by layers, with each layer presenting an obstacle to those wishing to do harm to the facility and its employees, to airliners and to the traveling public. Inside the airport security perimeter, in non-secure or public areas, the most ubiquitous and visible security layer is composed of police, different kinds of vehicle barriers, and one or more passenger screening checkpoints. Outside the airport, the first visible layer of defense is the security fence guarding its perimeter. Airports must always ensure they’re secure not only from the inside but also from the outside, and the technologies available to them to ensure the latter are only growing better over time.
Kelly Hoggan, Founder and CEO of H4 Solutions, previously served as assistant administrator for operations at the Transportation Security Administration. In that role, he was responsible for aircraft and checkpoint security operations at the nation's 450-plus commercial airports.