Picture this. You show up to the airport for a flight. You glide from the curb to drop off your checked bag, then directly to the gate, unfettered by the lines waiting for X-ray machines at a security checkpoint. Highly sophisticated airport technology would read your face and your vitals and scan your bag seamlessly, all without sacrificing safety — the technology would alert authorities to suspicious travelers who need to be pulled aside. For most travellers who pose no threat, the only obstacle would be avoiding buying a cinnamon bun.
That future may not be far away.
While airport technology hasn’t changed fundamentally since the 1980, the United States Department of Homeland Security is already testing facial recognition technology and biometric scanners that detect suspicious travellers arriving in the United States.
Walking nonstop from the airport curb to gate, just like in the movie Total Recall, might be possible in the next five to 10 years, says Steve Karoly, the acting assistant administrator leading innovation for the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
Airport checkpoints are a constant balance of security and speed. Passengers have to make their flights, but safety must be ensured. On top of that, the machines also need to prevent false alarms by distinguishing between real threats and things that may resemble threats, all without overstepping travellers’ privacy. For example: honey and a liquid explosive might look similar at a molecular level, says Mark Laustra, vice president of global business development at Analogic Corporation, one of the manufacturers of baggage scanning machines found at airport security checkpoints.
And those manufacturers could have big changes in store.
Leave your laptop in your bag
One change on the horizon? Antiquated X-ray baggage scanners may soon be replaced by more advanced computed tomography (CT) scanners, which would mean that luggage would move through seamlessly for most passengers.
CT scanners are already used for larger, checked bags, but several manufacturers are working on making them smaller and less expensive to be used on carry-ons, Karoly says. The TSA is working with these companies to assess the new scanners in airports, he adds. Analogic has one of its own, called ConneCT, beginning the approval process now.
The TSA is collaborating with agencies from other countries to speed up the approval process for new technology. A number of European airports use CT scanning for carry-on luggage, plus more devices designed to detect dangerous liquids, gels, and aerosols. By learning how this technology has been used elsewhere, the TSA can figure out how best to deploy it at home. “Through our international partnerships, TSA is avoiding duplications of effort and effectively advancing screening capability investments in the US,” Karoly says.
To Laustra, this could represent a “quantum leap”: that passengers don’t have to take things like laptops or liquids out of their bags at security checkpoints.
But Karoly sees beyond the “quantum leap” — airport security is starting to shift away from checkpoints altogether.
No more checkpoints?
Now, the TSA is starting to see security as an ecosystem that starts before a passenger even arrives at the airport and ends when the passenger reaches his or her destination. The TSA and its partners are still figuring out what privacy looks like with this new technology, Karoly says.
Though rapidly advancing technology is changing travelers’ relationship with airport security, the TSA’s job is fundamentally the same. “Sometimes people forget that we’re in the business to make them safe,” Karoly says. “Though there is a checkpoint in their way, it’s there for a specific reason. I think we will continue to do our jobs to make [passengers] safer at the airport and on the plane.”
Agencies from places like Europe and Israel seemed to be developing and adopting technology more quickly.
“The administrator recognised that the acquisition process, as well as our tech maturity processes, aren’t necessarily as agile as they need to be,” Karoly says. So it created the TSA’s Innovation Task Force, designed to work with private companies, such as manufacturers or even airlines, for a more “entrepreneurial” approach to new security technology.
Since its creation in February, the Innovation Task Force is already making waves.
Take automated screening lanes, for example. In March, Delta representatives collaborated with the TSA Innovation Task Force to test the technology, which had been used in Europe for five years, Karoly says. In May, the lanes were installed for assessment the Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport. More innovations are on their way; in November, American Airlines announced two new automated baggage screening lanes in Chicago’s O’Hare Airport intended to reduce the time travelers spend waiting for their bags by 30 percent.
But whether it’s in the US or elsewhere, improving security infrastructure at airports is a daunting task.
The TSA operates at approximately 440 US airports with more than 13,000 pieces of security equipment in use designed to detect threats on a person or inside baggage, Karoly says. When a machine stops working, which happens every 10 to 15 years, the airport’s local TSA must choose from a list of new technology vetted and evaluated by the agency.
All of those machines come from manufacturers who have spent years developing them to meet the TSA’s technology requirements and detection standards, which details how the technology should perform. (Karoly couldn’t offer details of these for security reasons, but mentioned that machines have to be able to detect explosives.) The vetting process occurs year-round; the exact number of technology approved every year varies.
In the past, the only way technology could be approved by the TSA was through a standardised, formal process. Manufacturers send an application and prototype of their machine to TSA’s research facility in Atlantic City, New Jersey. There, the TSA makes sure the machine meets the agency’s standards for detecting threats and for humans to operate it, all while working with the manufacturer on tweaks or improvements. Finally, the technology is tested at a handful of airports around the country.
The whole process, from testing to approval, usually takes somewhere around three years, though sometimes it can take nearly decade, Laustra says; Karoly estimates about five years on average.
Vetted technology — things like the Explosives Trace Detector that requires a swab of the bag and hand, or the now-retired “puffer” machines, or the minivan-sized X-ray machines, called CTX 5500, that passengers sometimes put their bags through before they are checked — is put on a list so that, when existing machinery needs to be replaced every ten years or so, TSA at individual airports can select the right technology to replace it based on factors like performance and cost.
This delay, between innovation and adoption, helps explain why it may take a few years to see the most up-to-date technology at your local airport.
But with such standard technological requirements, the TSA wasn’t encouraging companies to think creatively about how to improve security. “The technology hasn’t changed much since the 1980s, when we were protecting aircraft from hijacking,” Laustra says. For example, many airports still use 2-D X-ray systems to scan carry-on baggage, which are limited in the types of explosives they can detect, and simple walk-through metal detectors instead of the more advanced millimeter wave technology to scan passengers’ bodies. “We’ve seen small incremental changes but not any quantum leaps,” Laustra adds.
When the TSA approves a piece of technology, it’s given an automatic green light in a handful of other countries. “A lot of other governments around the world, especially in Asia, rely on TSA. It’s pretty much the gold standard in terms of testing and evaluation,” Laustra says.
Regardless of where you'll find yourself in the world, navigating airports will be getting easier — but those cinnamon buns, unfortunately, will likely remain overpriced.
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