Fast track screening

Passing through security

In the second part of an article on major changes to baggage screening technology and regulation, Gary Mason looks at what is happening at airports in the US where the Transport Security Administration (TSA) is both the regulator and customer for airport security systems.

In July of this year, the TSA made an announcement about a major new passenger and baggage screening initiative with American Airlines. This autumn, the joint initiative will see the installation of new screening technology, including automated security screening lanes and computed tomography (CT) scanners, at select American Airlines hubs nationwide.

The automated screening lanes – already in use at one US airport – incorporate technology and screening station modifications that enhance security effectiveness while decreasing the time travelers spend in security screening by approximately 30 per cent. TSA and American Airlines anticipate deployment of these lanes to Chicago (O’Hare), Dallas/Fort Worth, Los Angeles and Miami.

American Airlines and TSA also plan to deploy computed tomography (CT) technology at a Phoenix TSA screening checkpoint, as a pilot program set to begin by the end of 2016.

“Our foremost priority is the security of the traveling public,” said TSA Administrator Peter V. Neffenger. “To ensure that we remain up-to-date in an evolving threat environment, TSA continues to test and deploy state-of-the-art technologies. This collaboration with American Airlines is an important step in enhancing the traveler experience while maintaining effective security.”

“We are proud to be working collaboratively with the TSA to support next generation screening technology at five of our hubs this fall,” said American Airlines Chief Operating Officer Robert Isom. “These state-of-the-art lanes, along with new detection technology that will be tested in Phoenix, will enhance security effectiveness and efficiency, while improving the customer experience.  On behalf of our team members who are working to take care of customers every day, we appreciate the TSA’s collaboration in implementing these new innovative technologies.”

The advanced equipment in the automated lanes offers a number of features designed to improve the screening of travelers by automating many of the functions currently conducted manually, allowing passengers to move more swiftly through the checkpoint. These innovations include:

  • Automated belts that draw bags into the X-ray machines, returning the bins back to queue after completion of the screening.
  • Bags with a potential threat can be directed to a separate area to allow bins behind it to continue through the system uninterrupted.
  • Property bins that are 25 percent larger than the bins in regular screening lanes.
  • Unique Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags that are attached to each bin to allow for additional accountability of items as they transit throughout the system.
  • Cameras that capture photos of the outside of the bag, which is linked to the X-ray image of the bag’s contents.

CT technology, currently only used at US airports to screen checked bags, is expected to significantly improve the throughput when added to the screening process in Phoenix. 3D CT technology could make it possible to allow passengers to leave liquids, gels and aerosols, as well as laptops, in their carry-on bags at all times. This results in a quicker throughput and less bin use. If the pilot testing is successful, TSA may deploy CT technology to other checkpoints nationwide.

In collaboration with vendors, airlines, airports, and across the counter-terrorism community, TSA will roll out additional automated checkpoint lanes to improve the screening process as well as help minimize wait times. TSA’s long-term goals are to incorporate automated security checkpoint lanes at all US airports. “Our responsibility is to keep passengers safe but also moving through security,” said Neffenger.

The TSA differs from the European model for airport security equipment in that as far as vendors are concerned it is both the regulator and the main customer for all the detection systems used at airports.

As such, the TSA is directly responsible for security screening of passengers and baggage at approximately 440 airports in the United States, serving approximately 1.8 million people per day, and prescreening more than 14 million passengers each week. TSA also conducts security regulation compliance inspections and enforcement activities at airports for domestic and foreign air carriers, and for air cargo screening operations throughout the United States and at last point of departure locations internationally.

It has also had to adapt to an increased workload that has accompanied the growing number of carry-on bags at checkpoints due to the current practice of many airlines charging fees for all checked baggage; the restrictions on liquids, aerosols, and gels that were implemented to counter a known terrorist threat; and the screening required for the significant increase in the number of laptops carried by passengers.

TSA utilizes AT (Advanced Technology) x-ray systems at the checkpoints to screen roughly 3 million carry-on bags for explosives each day. AT x-ray technology detects threats in carry-on baggage by providing a clear, high-definition x-ray image. AT x-ray technology refers to both first-generation AT x-ray (AT-1) and next-generation AT x-ray (AT-2) units.

The AT systems have multiple projection x-ray sources that provide multiple views of the contents in a carry-on bag. AT x-ray systems are designed to support the application of detection algorithms to find both liquid and bulk explosives threats. TSA began replacing the Threat Image Projection X-ray (TRX) legacy carry-on baggage screening systems with AT units in 2008. The TRX systems could not offer the enhanced functionality offered by AT x-ray systems, such as automated detection and improved imaging capabilities. At present, approximately 60 TRX machines remain across fewer than 50 airports.

TSA purchased the first AT-1 systems in 2008. An upgrade was performed on the AT-1s between 2011 and 2012, which included updating software, adding an infrared operator sensor, adding a queueing conveyor (Rapiscan only), and adding Alternate Viewing Stations (secondary workstations), all of which brought the AT-1 equipment to functional equivalency with the AT-2 equipment. The purchase and deployment of AT-2 systems began in 2012.

Explosives Trace Detectors

ETDs are employed in checkpoint and checked baggage to screen for traces of explosives. TSOs swab a piece of carry-on or checked baggage, or a passenger’s hands, and then place the swab inside the ETD unit to analyze it for the presence of potential explosive residue. TSA is developing next-generation ETD requirements and documentation, such as the concept of operations, operational requirements document, and functional requirements document. TSA currently has approximately 5,385 ETDs deployed to airports for both checkpoint and checked baggage screening.

TSA screens 100 per cent of checked baggage with Explosives Detection Systems (EDS) or a suitable alternative, such as an ETD device. This amounts to approximately 450 million checked bags screened at US airports each year .

The initial EDS equipment that was deployed to airports to comply with US air transport security legislation starting in 2003 was commonly installed in airport terminal lobbies, increasing congestion in already crowded public areas. The EDS machines generally were not integrated with the airport’s baggage handling system. Instead, they were stand-alone installations requiring the manual loading and unloading of bags. These stand-alone EDS machines required high levels of staffing, and did not take advantage of high-throughput capabilities associated with integrated systems. Since achieving the ATSA mandate, TSA’s checked baggage focus has expanded to ensure that all airports’ checked baggage screening zones use the most efficient and effective technologies. This effort required the deployment of technology with improved performance, and the integration of EDS equipment in line with airport baggage handling systems to improve the efficiency of checked baggage screening operations at many larger airports.

To ensure cost-effectiveness, the TSA has established a method to evaluate EDS installation requests. Typically, 1,000 bags per week or 100 bags in a peak hour are the minimum throughput requirements to qualify for an EDS. In the case of a request for an exception, the reasoning for the exception is evaluated and documented. In locations where an airport does not screen the minimum requirement to deem the EDS as being cost-effective, ETD screening is provided.

TSA has deployed approximately 2,600 checked baggage next-generation ETDs at US airports. In March 2015, TSA awarded a contract to Implant Sciences for the purchase and deployment of 85 next-generation ETDs for checked baggage screening to replace legacy units that have reached the end of their projected life cycle. These improved ETD units have enhanced explosives detection sensitivity and the ability to detect a wider range of explosives threats.

Working in collaboration with DHS’s Science and Technology (S&T) Directorate and industry, TSA is pursuing new capabilities in the detection of explosive threats within checked baggage. These new capabilities include the ability to detect an expanded set of threat materials with higher detection probabilities, lower false-alarm rates, faster throughput rates, and at lower life-cycle costs, resulting in less impact to airport operations and the traveling public.

Areas of research and development in checked baggage screening technologies include: new means of data acquisition, data processing and management, detection algorithm development, and systems integration. Examples of potential new data acquisition techniques include stationary gantry x-ray systems, which could provide improved x-ray imaging capabilities and significantly reduce maintenance costs; and three-dimensional x-ray systems, which could provide improved threat detection and reduced life-cycle cost. Efforts also are ongoing in the areas of computed tomography image reconstruction and segmentation using powerful data processing systems.

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