Transportation Lab Seeks Radical Change at Airport Checkpoints

By Stew Magnuson

LOS ANGELES — Transportation Security Laboratory Director Susan Hallowell would like to see the day when airline passengers no longer have to take their shoes off after standing in a long line at airport security checkpoints.

To that end, she would like to combine the line and an array of sensors into what she calls a “tunnel of truth.”

The concept — with the somewhat Orwellian name — would have passengers stand on a conveyor belt moving under an archway as various sensors scan them for weapons, bombs or other prohibited items. By the time they step out of the tunnel, they have been thoroughly checked out, she said at a homeland security science and technology conference sponsored by the National Defense Industrial Association.

“You’re in line anyway … why not enclose that in a little glass thing and do your analysis there?” she asked. The lab has given a grant to Penn State University to study the concept, she added.

The lab, located in Atlantic City, N.J., is responsible for testing current screening devices and developing new technologies for both airports and for other public transportation.

Among the new technologies that could be placed in the tunnels are backscatter X-ray machines, which peer underneath clothes, and passive and active millimeter wave sensors that can see the outlines of concealed metal objects. These technologies are already being used in pilot programs.

Puffer machines are also in use and dislodge molecules from the residue gathered during the manufacture of explosives. The human body also gives off a heat signature, and sensors could follow the thermal plume coming off the body as the passenger moves through the tunnel, she noted. Actual bombs, if they are hidden on the body, give off their own heat signatures, and could be detected as well.

Before the concept can move forward, the laboratory will have to perfect all the sub-systems that would go into the so-called tunnel, she said. Meanwhile, the lab continues to test machines designed to check shoes for explosives without passengers having to take them off. So far, it has not found an acceptable solution.

“We’re still working on shoes. We’re not there yet,” she said.

Topics: Homeland Security, Homeland Security, Air Transportation

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