Seeking Detection Perfection

Less visible than the ubiquitous airport screener workforce, the Security Technology Deployment Office of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) nonetheless has, in some ways, an even bigger impact on airline and airport security. The office works behind the scenes to procure and deploy the technologies that scan people and their luggage for weapons, explosives and other threats.
The deployment office funds the installation of screening technologies in airports, sets the priorities for what to install and where to install it, and serves as a resource to provide guidance and answer questions.
In December, the office issued a notice to identify companies that could provide the agency with new explosive trace detection (ETD) systems. ETD systems collect samples and detect vapors of explosives from swabs used by screeners to test luggage.
Screeners drop the swabs into chemical analyzers that can identify the presence of explosive materials in less than 10 seconds, according to TSA. ETDs are relatively small devices, costing about $40,000 each.
TSA conducts extensive tests on the ETD machines and, by the end of 2004, had certified the systems of only three companies to sell them to airports: Barringer Instruments Inc. of Providence, NJ, which was purchased by British firm Smiths Detection; Ion Track Instruments of Wilmington, Mass.; and Thermo Detection of Chelmsford, Mass.
Smiths Detection offers the Ionscan 400B desktop explosives trace detector, which the company sells to airports and military and law enforcement agencies.
The ETD systems’ color-coded display can produce a reading within eight seconds, according to press materials on the system, including red to indicate the presence of explosive material and green for their absence. The device can detect the explosives RDX, PETN, TNT, Semtex, Tetryl, NG, nitrates, HMX and other materials. It can also print the specific name of any contraband drugs that may be present on a swab.
The presence of explosive residue on passengers who deal with explosives in their professions or their hobbies can trigger “nuisance alarms,” TSA guidance warns, indicating the presence of actual explosive material that does not pose an active threat. Nuisance alarms could be triggered, for example, by “construction workers who handle explosives for their jobs or passengers who take nitroglycerin as heart medication,” according to TSA procedures.
Trace portals
ETD devices also come in the form of portals, similar in concept to metal detectors that passengers walk through. A TSA project titled Atlantic-2 aims to provide airports with new technologies in their explosive trace portals, initially deployed to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York and five other airports as part of a 90-day pilot program.
The portals were also tested at Greater Rochester International Airport in New York; Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport in Mississippi; San Diego International Airport in California; Tampa International Airport in Florida; and T.F. Green State Airport in Providence, RI.
TSA solicited bids for the new portals last November. Transportation security officials plan to purchase 10 advanced portals in fiscal 2005 in a fixed-price contract that would include training on their use and maintenance support to keep them operational, according to the solicitation.
Smiths Detection also manufactures these portals, which would undergo six months of testing to ensure they meet the needs of the airports.
The portals are also similar to metal detectors in that they alert screeners to the presence of banned materials. Puffs of air are blown on passengers as they pass through. The portal then collects the air samples and analyzes it for any trace of explosives.
Smiths Detection’s Ionscan Sentinel II Contraband Detection Portal picks up traces of about 40 substances, both explosives and narcotics, the company says.
“Gentle puffs of air dislodge any particles trapped on the body, hair, clothing and shoes. These particles are then directed into the instrument for analysis,” according to Sentinel II’s product description.
Combined with “preconcentration technology” developed by Sandia National Laboratories, the Sentinel II can scan up to seven people per minute, Smiths Detection says.
Explosive detection systems
Explosive detection systems (EDS), manufactured by InVision Technologies Inc. of Newark, Calif., and L-3 Communications of New York, are perhaps the best-known airport screening devices.
Screeners feed luggage through these large minivan-sized systems, which weigh about 9,000 pounds each, to discover if any explosives lurk inside them before they are loaded onto airplanes. TSA met its initial challenge to introduce about 1,100 of the systems, along with about 6,000 ETDsystems, to 429 airports nationwide before Dec. 31, 2002, to screen 100 percent of all checked passenger luggage.
The EDS systems use probing radiation—specifically, computer-aided tomography (CAT) scan X-rays, like those used by hospitals—to register the characteristics of materials inside of beds. The EDS devices, which cost about $750,000 each, can determine the presence of explosive materials through these characteristics.
General Electric acquired InVision Technologies in December for $900 million, after InVision came to an agreement with the Justice Department to settle claims of improper payments in foreign sales to China, Thailand and the Philippines. InVision agreed to pay $800,000 in penalties and cooperate with investigations by the department and the Securities and Exchange Commission.
GE combined InVision with its GE Infrastructure unit, based in Wilton, Conn. GE Infrastructure manufactures trace detection equipment certified by the federal government, much as InVision makes certified EDS machines.
Ken Boyda, president and CEO of GE Infrastructure Security, said in a statement: “Integrating trace detection, computed tomography and X-ray diffraction technologies into a single dynamic business offering will accelerate our ability to bring new products and systems to market that make security applications more accurate and productive.”
Lockheed Martin Systems Integration, based in Oswego, NY, received a $5.4 million grant on Nov. 3, under the TSA Phoenix Project, to upgrade the EDS machines. The contractor team is examining the speed of baggage processing, the efficiency of the machines and the EDS’ ability to detect explosive material.
TSA established the Phoenix Project as a three-year effort to improve existing explosives detection systems, combining new technologies and applications with the existing ones. Lockheed Martin anticipates upgrading the EDS machines through the middle of 2005 with the helpof Analogic Corp. of Peabody, Mass.
Backscatter X-rays
In recent months, many airline passengers complained of being patted down by screeners as they moved through security lines. TSA stepped up the pat-downs as a means of making sure passengers did not carry concealed weapons or other contraband items under their clothes.
But much as they dislike pat-downs, passengers may find the alternatives even more intrusive. TSA is examining a powerful screening technology called backscatter X-ray, which can see through an individual’s clothes, instantly revealing any plastic or metal items that passengers might hide on their bodies.
The subjects of the X-ray appear on a screen completely naked, albeit with an X-ray machine luminescence about their skins.
Former Homeland Security Inspector General Clark Kent Ervin endorsed the use of the backscatter technology in a September 2004 Audit of Passenger and Baggage Screening Procedures At Domestic Airports (http://www.dhs.gov/interweb/ assetlibrary/OIG_04-37_0904.pdf) published by his office.
“Backscatter technology offers a more effective and unambiguous alarm resolution strategy than a pat-down inspection,” Ervin concluded. Though he acknowledged the privacy concerns, he nonetheless said that they were no reason to block the use of the technology. “…There are ways to mitigate passenger concerns, including separating the backscatter operator and the subject, and using software enhancements to obfuscate the images,” he said.
Other drawbacks to using the backscatter technology include the size of the equipment, which takes up a great deal of space, its cost and the slow rate of passengers it can screen per hour.
Ervin’s auditors recommended employing the backscatter technology to provide secondary screening on passengers who set off metal detectors, because finding the cause of alarms has proven difficult for screeners.
American Science and Engineering Inc. (AS&E), based in Billerica, Mass., manufactures backscatter X-ray machines that have been purchased by TSA. Themachines, called BodySearch, display both organic and inorganic materials hidden on a person’s body.
BodySearch uses the company’s proprietary Z Backscatter technology to produce images of people under their clothes. It meets the health and safety regulations for X-ray systems, including the US Bureau of Radiological Health Standards for Cabinet X-ray Systems. The company insists that the technology is safe, noting that the “subject receives a radiation dose of only 5 microrem per scan, equivalent to 1/6,000th of a medical chest X-ray.”
The BodySearch system measures about 4 feet by 7 feet by 10 feet, which raises space concerns when trying to place it in an airport lobby.
Rapiscan Security Products Inc., based in Hawthorne, Calif., provides the rival Secure 1000 backscatter X-ray system, which is slightly more compact than the BodySearch device. It measures about 4 feet by 3 feet by 6.5 feet and occupies about 11.5 square feet, the company says. A Secure 1000 machine weighs exactly 1,097 pounds.
The Secure 1000 emits less than 10 microrem per scan, potentially more than the AS&E device, and scans one image in less than 8 seconds.
“The Secure 1000 operates by scanning the subject with a narrow beam of X-rays. Some of these X-rays will be reflected by the body as backscatter in the opposite direction, and be gathered by sensitive X-ray detectors,” according to the Secure 1000’s brochure. “Advanced image processing algorithms use this information to generate the images.”
Rapiscan Security Products noted that the X-rays of the Secure 1000 penetrate only about 0.1 inches of skin, meaning “any object that would be deeper than that level would not be detected.”
The company noted that the “images acquired with the system can be saved on the system’s hard disk or transferred to floppy disk for training and legal documentation.” These can be sent and received over the Internet and viewed on personal computers—which provides no comfort to people worried about their privacy. HST

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