Thursday, October 11, 2007

Coming To An Airport Checkpoint Near You

Remember the scene from the Schwarzenegger classic sci-fi flick "Total Recall" where a machine scanned the bodies of arriving passengers on Mars looking for weapons? At the time it seemed quite a ways out based on the technology of the day, but not anymore. About a year ago I mentioned a new airport security tool being tested at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport that would scan the body looking for explosives as well as weapons. The unit used backscatter (similar to xray) technology and presented an image that isn't for the modest at heart.

That unit is still being tested but it is now being joined by another similar unit called the L-3 ProVision millimeter wave from L-3 Communications which is well known in the airport security business as they already provide Explosive Detection Systems (EDS) for many of the larger 400 plus commercial airports in the US. As with the backscatter unit, the L-3 ProVision, which uses what is called millimeter wave technology, is designed to replace the standard metal detectors at airport security checkpoints and would add the ability to scan for metal, ceramic, liquids and plastic objects hidden even under layers of clothing that could possibly be missed by your standard metal detector.

WaveAlso like the backscatter unit, it outputs an image that some will not be very happy with. The unit software has the ability to blur the image somewhat as depicted in the promotional image shown here but there are some privacy experts that have taken issue with the images produced.

"If you want to see a naked body, this is a naked body," said Barry Steinhardt, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's program on technology and liberty.

Airport installations of this unit would have the image display portion placed in a private screening room out of the view of the public and could be setup to only show images to TSA personnel when an actual alarm is detected.

So when could we see something like this is Sioux Falls? I would have to say not anytime soon as I see a few potential pitfalls for placement here (other than the obvious modesty ones). First off it costs from $100,000 to $120,000 each but the major stumbling block is that it is rumored to only have a throughput of around 200 people per hour. That may sound like a lot but in busier airports like Sioux Falls which would only probably have room for one, that could slow down the screening which is already not known for speed. In airports with multiple lanes like Phoenix Sky Harbor where it is currently being tested that isn't as big of an issue.

Whether or not the L-3 ProVision gets placed in an airport near you, it is still quite cool to see technology catching up with what at one time had only been a movie fantasy.

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