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Airport Security and How it Protects the Flying Public

By Kelly Hoggan

Computed tomography machines will soon become a common fixture at TSA airport security checkpoints.

Several forms of aviation security exist at every commercial airport in the United States. The security most visible to air travelers is that of the TSA checkpoint through which anyone wishing to board a flight must generally pass. And though the airport security checkpoint and its walk-through screening portals are the most obvious to flyers there are several other systems or safeguards which exist to protect them and the airliners on which they travel.

Facial Recognition Technology

A March 2019 article posted at the Newsweek website points out that airport facial recognition technology has now arrived. To start, U.S. Customs and Border Protection plans to institute facial recognition by 2025 at all U.S. international airports as part of its Biometric Entry-Exit program.

Miami’s international airport, for one, already has the technology running in a limited fashion, with flyers going overseas simply facing an automated camera at their boarding gate. Cameras quickly match the flyer’s facial features with their biometric information already entered into Customs databases and boarding permission is either granted or denied.

Airports are considered public places, and facial recognition technology is akin to public surveillance cameras now in wide use in many international cities such as London. The latter metropolis is estimated to have one closed-circuit television camera for every 14 people, or nearly 628,000 such surveillance devices spread throughout the city.

In the US, where privacy rights have historically held prominence, the number of cameras in any given city appears to be much lower at present. New York’s “Domain Awareness System,” which is a part of the NYPD’s protective efforts, boasts about 18,000 cameras, including many that are in the private sector. Over 2,600 such surveillance cameras are directly linked to the police department, though, and monitored constantly by its officers.

Computed Tomography Screening

The Transportation Security Administration is determined to speed the flow of passengers through its checkpoints, with its increasing use of computed tomography, or CT, machines being just one example. Such baggage screening devices have been in use for checked luggage for some time, though the amount of time once needed to screen checked luggage made them impractical at passenger checkpoints. However improvements in CT technology have now made the machines extremely suitable for high-passenger-flow screening at TSA’s airport checkpoints.

Initially installed at 13 different US airports as of late-2018, flyers are simply dropping their carryon bags into the large screening devices, where TSA operators can quickly and vividly see their contents. CT machines are a qualitative step up from the older style x-ray machines, and operators typically need less time to scan travelers’ carryon bags for prohibited items compared to x-ray scanners. TSA is in the process of rolling out another 200 such CT devices at airports throughout 2019, with the promise of more to come soon. In fact, x-ray scanning of carryon bags may even become a thing of the past.

Millimeter-Wave Scanning

Security scanning technology has improved to the point where an airline passenger’s entire body can be scanned in less than a second, all while keeping their hands comfortably by their sides. Known as “millimeter-wave scanning,” the technology utilizes upper-end radio band frequencies, and as such is a completely benign security screening technique which also offers flyers more privacy.

Working in combination with artificial intelligence (AI), this new security screening technology analyzes images on the fly and in less than a second, meaning shorter security checkpoint lines at even the busiest of airports. TSA screeners are also able to more effectively scan each person as they pass through the millimeter-wave devices while at the same time ensuring their complete privacy.

TSA is currently testing these screening devices in a limited fashion, though the agency anticipates much wider usage if they prove out during their test runs.

Other security devices soon to make a widespread appearance include passive terahertz scanning. This non-invasive “standoff” detection technology can quickly find a wide array of concealed objects, and it does so through passive means, meaning it doesn’t emit X-rays or other types of ‘active’ radiation while doing so. Passive terahertz scanning also doesn’t need to create images of intimate body details – which will no doubt please those being scanned -- and its standoff capabilities allow it to discover prohibited items from distances that allow much greater ease of movement for passengers.

Billions are Flying Annually

The year 2017 saw more than 4 billion air travelers taking to the skies globally, and the number of flyers is only predicted to increase over the coming years. It’s vital, then, that airports, airlines and their security partners such as TSA be able to rapidly move massive numbers of people through screening, all while making sure security isn’t compromised in any way. CT and millimeter-wave devices and the use of facial recognition technology, all assisted by artificial intelligence, hold great promise in terms of effective and timely security processing of all those flyers.

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 400-plus commercial airports.

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