TSA demonstrates new airport screening technology


At the world's busiest airport on Tuesday, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) demonstrated how its new software, on an advanced imaging technology machine, works.

Hartsfield-Jackson has a total of 14 advanced imaging technology (AIT) machines, featuring millimeter wave technology, which bounce harmless electromagnetic waves off the body, to make a black and white three-dimensional image, according to Jon Allen, a spokesman for TSA. The machines are dispersed throughout the airport's main, north, and south security checkpoint areas.

"We are always looking for new technology and procedures that will both enhance security while strengthening privacy protections," added John Pistole, administrator for TSA. "Testing this new software will help us confirm test results, that indicate it can provide the same high level of security as current advanced imaging technology units, while further enhancing privacy protections already in place."

The TSA began testing the software on one AIT machine, on Feb. 5, at the main security checkpoint area of Hartsfield-Jackson, and it's expected to last 45 to 60 days, said TSA spokesman Allen. The software is specifically for machines that use millimeter wave technology, and Hartsfield-Jackson only houses this type of advanced technology, he emphasized.

"What we are evaluating now is whether this allows the privacy to go a step further, not having there be a unique-to-passenger image generated," added Allen.

Other areas that will be looked at include, the length of time it takes passengers to retrieve their belongings after screening is complete, and feedback from passengers screened with the software, said Allen.

For security reasons, Allen said he is unable to disclose how many passengers have gone through the machine since testing began.

"It certainly is one of the issues we will look at, whether more people are able to come through per hour...than the existing machines," said Allen. "We think there will be efficiency gained having [the ]software conduct the analysis."

Currently, the advanced imaging technology alone creates unique three-dimensional body images of a passenger, when he or she is scanned, said Allen. The image is viewed a transportation security officer in a remotely-located viewing room, he said.

"The technology is designed to detect metallic and non-metallic items underneath the clothing," said the spokesman.

The new software eliminates the specific body images, and omits the need of a viewing room, said Allen.

"Through removing this step of the process, AIT screening will become more efficient, expanding ... the capability of the technology," said TSA officials. The software automatically detects items of potential threat, and indicates their location on a generic outline of a person, that appears on a monitor linked to the machine.

The anomalies will appear in yellow square-like figures on the screen with a red background. If the passenger is clear, the monitor will have a green screen, and show the words "OK" on it, and the generic human image will not appear, said Allen.

According to officials, initial testing began at the TSA Systems Integration Facility, located at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, in the Washington, D.C., in the fall of 2010.

TSA has also been working with L-3, the manufacturer of the software and machines, for more than a year, said Allen. The software is $2.7 million and was allocated to L-3 to cover the test, and the implementation of the software on all of the deployed millimeter-wave machines at airports, if tests are successful, he said.

Hartsfield-Jackson was chosen as a testing site because it is an area with sufficient volume, needed to generate good results, he said.

"Obviously, when you are at a checkpoint at the world's busiest airport, we know that there will be sufficient passenger volume during this test to enable us to get the results we are looking for," said Allen.

McCarran International Airport, in Las Vegas, Nev., and the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, are two other test locations for the software, said officials.

"Anytime we unveil new technology we want to make sure security remains foremost, that whatever technology is implemented offers a security benefit, and advance imaging technology does," Allen added.