By James O’Brien
Here’s a guarantee: Come up with a problem involving systems, and technology innovators will seek to solve it. Make that problem the safety of passengers on airplanes, and the urgency those innovators bring to the table increases a hundredfold.
Using tech to augment how we watch for and catch terrorists and others who would do us harm before they board an aircraft is a process flush with options — and with challenges.
Since at least 2001, with the formation of the TSA and the implementation of new criteria, methods and instruments for identifying travel-related threats, a national discussion has emerged about how much security is enough, and how much is too much: What does it take to make air travel as safe as possible without compromising privacy and our rights?
That discussion does have its place, but when it comes to the future of airport security from a technology standpoint, so does a look at all the emerging options.
There are some basic categories that developers working on this suggest are key. What follow are some of the big ideas, and experts weigh in on the potential of each.
Imagine you could enter an airport, toss your bag on a conveyor belt, breeze through security and board a plane without ever dealing with another human or handling any documents. This could all be accomplished with new face and iris scanners that can quickly identify a person — even a fidgety one — and automatically approve his or her progression through the normally onerous process of getting on an airplane. Versions of this tech have already been deployed at London’s Gatwick and elsewhere, in part thanks to companies such as AOptix.
2. Behavioral Analytics
Essentially, this is software that continuously scans surveillance video feeds for suspicious behavior, as opposed to relying on human eyes alone.
3. Facial Scanning
These systems allow video surveillance to match faces to a database of previously identified individuals. Researchers and analysts debate whether the technology of facial scanning works the way we want it to, right now, but there is no question that the concept is part of the discussion when it comes to the future of airport security.
4. Handheld Raman Scanners
What if security teams could point a handheld analyzer at a suspect and see instantly whether they were carrying explosives or other illicit materials? That’s what companies such as Rigaku are working on — a point-and-shoot scanner that can see through containers and tell investigators if there’s something dangerous inside.
In the realm of airport security, it’s not just about individuals and what they may carry, it’s about securing the digital infrastructure of the modern travel hub against hackers who could cripple systems and threaten planes. “I think it’s becoming ever-more important and ever more significant,” said Richard Bloom, professor of security and intelligence studies at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, to weigh on the potential value of each. So much so that Embry-Riddle now teaches a cybersecurity course specifically designed to grapple with external cyber-attacks on aviation.
6. Video Synopsis Tools
Another way to penetrate airport security is to monitor its routines and look for soft spots. That means multiple visits to surveil the systems in place. A hub’s security forces can identify suspicious repeat visitors, but it’s a time-intensive process to scan hours and hours of video footage to do so.
One solution to that time factor is new software that can compress a lot of footage into a kind of visual synopsis. By showing numerous individuals from different timeframes in one image, investigators can then select the items — keyed to time signatures — that they want to see in the clips that contain them. One company working on this technology is BriefCam. Recently, investigators used the company’s software to search footage from the Boston Marathon bombings. See a demo of the app at work, here.
7. Integrated Alerts and Data
Another way of leveraging airport cameras is to empower them to see better and then share faster. Avigilon, one maker of such a system, is working with Dallas Love Field to implement this idea. “High-definition cameras have the ability to cover a wider area and can zoom in to see a face, read a license plate or determine a tail number on a plane,” said Bryan Schmode, executive vice president of global sales.
“New innovations in high-definition security enable operators to easily send footage to smartphones or tablets. Dallas Love Field’s police officers or airport officials will get the video of a suspicious person on a hand-held device immediately rather than having to race back to a central monitor to see what happened.”
Another company working on linking security responders in real time is Vidsys, which links together an airport’s systems such as video, access control, and fire alarms so that teams can quickly identify, verify and disseminate critical information to personnel on the ground.
8. Big Data
If the experts are going to build airport security around many different kinds of data streams, then Big Data systems can potentially increase the bang they get for their buck. “I think there’s going to be even more attention to [Big Data and data mining], to coming up with the algorithm that can identify what particular, small number of people are the ones most likely to be engaged in aviation-related terrorism,” said Bloom.
Finally, there’s the further flung future. While all of the above examples are either in use or have progressed to an advanced stage of research and prototype, the future of airport security is also about what if.
Along those lines, says Mike Vidikan, in charge of trends and foresight at Innovaro, imagine unmanned airport security systems — Roomba-like robots that roam terminals equipped with sensors to sniff out the chemicals of threats and contraband. Or think on next-gen biometrics.
“Brain-machine interfaces are already emerging in experimental and even commercial settings in both implantable and non-invasive formats,” Vidikan said. “In the future, a system using EEG signals could provide identity authentication.” Also, in September 2012, the US National Science and Technology Council forecast that rapid DNA analysis, a form of molecular biometric, “may in several years be introduced at the point of encounter.”