If you’ve taken a flight in the past decade, you’ve become familiar with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screening process that involves taking off your shoes, emptying your pockets, placing laptops on a tray so they can get X-rayed and walking through a metal detector. Some of you may have been selected for advanced screening that involved a pat down or being screened by a millimeter wave imager, which allows the TSA agent to identify any concealed weapons that may not be picked up by the metal detector.
The process at its best is time-consuming and at its worst can be intrusive. The TSA has had to discipline agents for inappropriate, unprofessional and even confrontational behavior. Although these incidents represent only a small percentage of the experiences of passengers going through security, they have had a large effect on the reputation and perception of the TSA. Despite the negative criticism and perception, there is no initiative to get rid of the TSA screening process. As bad as the security checks can be, no one wants another September 11. Thus the only way the process will significantly improve will be through advancements in technology. The technology with the most promise is millimeter wave technology.
Scanners using millimeter wave technology have been in airports for almost a decade now. They typically use twin antennas that circle the passenger and create a three-dimensional image. The image can sometimes take a second or two to resolve and is sent to a remote monitor for analysis. The process is too time-consuming for use on all passengers, so the TSA limits its use on randomly-selected passengers and persons of interest. The millimeter waves pass through soft materials like clothing and will bounce off harder materials that can’t be picked up by a metal detector, like ceramic knives or hidden explosives. Originally criticized for the resultant images being too revealing, the scanners have since been tuned to better protect a passenger’s privacy.
The problem with the current system is that since every passenger isn’t scanned, there is a chance that a passenger with a hidden weapon could slip through security. Furthermore, the selection process for advanced screening is susceptible to profiling and abuse by agents, which in turn can sour all passengers on the screening process. That’s why companies are trying to develop faster millimeter wave scanners. The millimeter waves themselves, unlike x-rays, have been shown to be safe since they involve low energy radio frequency waves which are non-ionizing and not likely to damage DNA. If large groups of people could be scanned quickly or even simultaneously, computer software (AI) could be used to select passengers for advanced screening.
Another potential solution for enhancing airport security are millimeter wave robots. These robots use low energy millimeter waves to scan crowds as they pass through them. The robots have software to identify the size and shape of weapons and transmitters that can alert security to any potential security threats. Developed by Kightscope, these robots are even being used on soft targets such as malls or concerts to enhance security. This sort of technology enhances security while simultaneously reducing the potential for profiling.
This past month the TSA and Delta airlines launched automated screening checkpoint lanes at LaGuardia Airport. The lanes will use RFID bin tagging and larger X-ray machines to allow customers to put items as large as roller suitcases through the X-ray machine. This step is just one of many that hope to speed up the security process at airports. Improving the airport security experience has become a priority and as millimeter wave technology improves, mass scanning and millimeter wave scanning robots will help TSA agents better identify potential threats while simultaneously speeding up the screening process and making it inherently fairer.
Perhaps in another 20 years the scanners will have improved enough that we could just walk to our plane and board, just like in the old days.