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Will Artificial Intelligence Improve Airport Security?

By Kelly Hoggan

To be effective in aviation security, artificial intelligence must have huge amounts of data.

No sane person enjoys standing in an airport security line. In some cases, especially when you’re late for your flight, the wait to get through security can seem like hours or even days. And wait times to make it through airport security have indeed gone up over the last 20 or so years in response to terrorism threats. Fortunately developments in artificial intelligence (AI) are beginning to make it easier to get through airport security.

Airports, airlines and government security agencies generally must balance two competing objectives. The first is to ensure that robust and effective aviation security programs are in place to protect air travelers. The second is to also ensure large numbers of travelers can make it through security screening and to their flights with as little fuss and inconvenience as possible. These days, AI may provide the answer as to just how both objectives can be met.

For one, governments and airports have been introducing new technology to improve “passenger throughput,” or the number of airline passengers processed through security per given time frame. As an example, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration has been rolling out new computed tomography (CT) luggage scanners. As a trial, TSA has placed those CT units at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX) and New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK).

The above systems all make use of AI to help identify threats, and the technology is also being widely implemented in other areas in the airport environment, both in the U.S. and overseas. These include using AI with self-service passenger check-in robots as well as improving facial recognitions capabilities in customs areas. The question, as always with airport security, is whether AI will help speed things up without compromising the ability to nab criminals and other bad actors.

A crucial component when using artificial intelligence in aviation security activities is the ability of the AI-based system to learn, which is known as “machine learning.” Generally, a system using AI improves as more information is fed into it. In the case of airport security, AI enables the machines responsible for security to take mountains of data, analyze it and then identify a threat faster than humans can. For passengers, AI means not having to remove your laptop from your carryon as you go through an airport security checkpoint.

Improvements in the ability of artificial intelligence to analyze all that data and screen air travelers also means the potential to greatly reduce the time spent in an airport security line. New AI-reliant aviation security systems are using a combination of facial recognition, cameras, and what’s called “millimeter-wave” technologies to scan people at portable security gates. As air travelers go through those gates, machine learning automatically analyzes data for threats such as guns and explosives while ignoring non-threats like keys and belt buckles.

For airports, such technological improvements mean that many more passengers per hour – up to 900 hourly, in fact -- can be sent through security lines than current technologies allow.

So what does all this mean for air travelers? With far less time spent waiting to make it through airport security lines, flyers won’t need to check in so early for their flights.

Also, AI could make it possible for airline passengers to check in both themselves and their luggage, receive their tickets and then rapidly pass through security without removing laptops, shoes, belts, jackets or much of anything else.

Using artificial intelligence, long airport security wait times as well as customs processing times may indeed become a thing of the past. We’re sure this will be a welcome development for all but the most masochistic of 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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