In 20 Years there will be an Additional 4 Billion Passengers Flying per Year, How are We Going to Screen Them All?

As the former head of research and development (R&D) for the United States (US) Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the person who used to be in charge of design and installation of security systems at the Pentagon, I’ve had to spend a lot of time thinking about how technology can improve security.

One of the most difficult challenges is developing and implementing an aviation security system that is effective, cost-efficient, can handle the volume of passengers and cargo without slowing down the pace of commerce, and isn’t viewed as intrusive. Unfortunately, as every air traveler knows our current aviation security system is far from perfect and takes a toll on everyone. Passengers are unhappy with wait times, intrusiveness and seeming inconsistencies; carriers worry about the scheduling impacts people, baggage and cargo screening can have; and airports worry about all the space used by the screening systems. Add in the economic costs of deploying and maintaining these systems and in the end we are left with an overall system that is monstrously expensive and yet is still derisively called “security theater” by many. While I believe that moniker is unfair and could point out the various ways the current aviation security paradigm has deterred, detected and defeated several threats faced by the aviation industry, the challenge still remains that the current system is expensive and unpopular.

Even more worrisome is the fact that the challenge being faced will only grow more difficult. The unprecedented rise of ISIL and their apparent financial resources demonstrate that terrorist threats are likely to remain for the foreseeable future. History shows that terrorists’ tactics evolve to attempt to avoid the security structures in place from the PanAm checked baggage bombing, to the 9/11 armed assault, to the attempted shoe bombing, to the underwear bomb, to explosives-packed printer toner cartridges. Because the threat can and does evolve, it creates a constant technology arms race between changing tactics and security capabilities. The challenge is to create cost-effective technology deployments that can also address multiple threats or be upgraded to address threats that evolve. Not only do we need to worry about the changing tactics of our adversary but we also need to deal with the inexorable march of commerce. Air transport, whether people or cargo, is likely to grow anywhere from 3-5% per year with the latest International Air Transport Association 20 year passenger forecast projecting a 4.1% annual growth rate and more than doubling of the current 3.3 billion passengers a year to 7.3 billion.

Normally investments in R&D by government security agencies are focused on improving capabilities against current and future threats, but I believe the question we must ask ourselves regardless of the changing nature of the threat, is how can the security systems in place improve their efficiencies and processing times to handle the additional 4 billion passengers expected over the next 20 years? In effect, how can we do more with less? The expected rise of passenger and cargo volume coupled with worldwide government austerity measures making significant increases in security staff and equipment unlikely has the potential to create substantial delays in security screening processes causing a drag on the growth of the aviation industry and the worldwide economy.

As an engineer and a former program manager at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) the answer you would expect me to give to solve this tsunami of challenges is technology, and you’d be partially correct. I believe there is a significant role for technology to play in improving our ability to screen faster better cheaper and my old organization the DHS Science and Technology Directorate even has a strategic goal to be able to “screen at the speed of life,” but I also believe that governments, and I’ll focus on US Government implementation since I know it best, could vastly improve their throughput, staff utilization rates, and effectiveness through process changes.

Clearly one of the most successful process changes that TSA has implemented is the risk-based screening (RBS) paradigm through their Pre-check program. Pre-check has doubled the rate of processing for passengers at Pre-check checkpoints and has saved TSA $100 million through the efficiencies gained. Current passenger throughput at checkpoints for non-Pre-check (standard) passengers is approximately 150-165 passengers per hour (PPH) and approximately 300 PPH for Pre-check passengers with over 40% of the American public eligible for some form of expedited screening. One way to create additional savings and throughput is to increase membership in Pre-check. The use of reciprocity for Global Entry members and establishment of Pre-check enrollment stations at airports were good first steps, but harnessing the innovation of the private sector and allowing private sector vetting for entry into Pre-check has the potential to significantly increase participation in the program.

Many times new technologies are needed to fully realize a planned process change. For example, technology challenges significantly limit the ability to expand the impact of RBS to checked baggage, which is currently screened the same way for every passenger. While the explosive detection systems (EDS) in use for checked baggage are very effective, a relatively large percentage is pulled out for secondary screening at a significant cost to the TSA. A big part of the challenge implementing RBS for checked bags is that it is difficult to identify a bag in an automated fashion that is traveling at baggage handling line speeds. One approach may be to use printable radio-frequency identification (RFID) baggage tags so that readers could automatically assess each bag prior to entering the EDS and dynamically adjusting the EDS detection algorithms based on the risks presented by each bag’s owner, potentially significantly lowering the number of bags that need secondary screening.

Additional technologies are on the horizon that could be used to improve screening efficiencies especially at standard passenger checkpoints where the processing time is 20-25 seconds for each passenger. Shaving even a couple seconds off processing time can have tremendous downstream impacts and create substantial cost savings. Some of the more promising technologies are the use of X-ray diffraction in carry-on baggage screening, advances in Nuclear Quadrapole Resonance, and metamaterials to make extremely fast imaging scanners.

Two of the most unpopular procedures during checkpoint screening for the public are the removal of shoes and the need to limit liquids to 100 milliliter containers or less and pull them out of carry-on bags. Both of these processes add significantly to the throughput times and are likely the majority of the processing time difference between standard and Pre-check screening lines. Work is currently underway to implement X-ray diffraction technology, currently in use in some large and very expensive checked baggage systems, into carry-on baggage x-ray systems. X-ray diffraction in this context allows the actual identification of explosives in a screened bag versus simple anomaly detection through imaging. Significant technological breakthroughs are required before the technology can be cost effective and right-sized for checkpoint operations, but it holds the promise of allowing passengers to keep the liquids inside their bags and potentially even raising the amount of liquids allowed to be carried on.

New capabilities being developed focus on detecting explosives embedded in small electronic devices may also be used to allow people to keep their shoes on. Last summer the TSA announced enhanced security measures requiring travelers from some airports to power-up electronic devices to prove the battery had not been swapped with explosives. For a variety of reasons existing technologies like trace detection and x-ray may have difficulties detecting these types of threats and a new approach using a known technology, Nuclear Quadrapole Resonance (NQR), has been developed and tested by the US Government and has shown an ability to detect explosives embedded in electronics and is being considered for deployment to international airports. Even more exciting though is the potential to use this approach to allow people to keep their shoes on by embedding the NQR capability in the footprint areas of the base plate of the Advanced Imaging Technology aka bodyscanners and screening passenger’s shoes the same time they are being scanned. This approach works within the boundaries of existing procedures and timelines and could significantly streamline the checkpoint screening process without sacrificing security standards.

Another technology that is poised to revolutionize security screening is the use of metamaterials to build an extremely fast solid state body scanning capability. Based on technology originally built for satellite communications these new metamaterials allow the creation of “steerable” millimeter wave beams operating at very high refresh rates so that multiple if not hundreds of images can be taken in a couple of seconds. This approach could replace the rotating gantry currently used in today’s bodyscanner that only takes a single picture with a walk through device that is one fifth the cost. Also, the ability to take hundreds of scans in seconds along with beam steering should allow the system to quickly perform a scan, automatically identify anomalies on a person, refocus the beam on those areas and rescan the anomaly, all in the time it takes to walk through a 2-3m long portal. This automated approach should not only produce better results with a higher throughput than current technologies but also automate the entire process to ensure a traveler’s privacy is protected.

While these technological advances may have substantial impacts on our ability to quickly screen travelers, they are likely to be years away and only a partial solution to the ever increasing queue of aviation passengers. One area that is ripe for innovation is the fundamental way we deploy, train and reward those who perform the screening. The flow of passengers into an airport is unfortunately not stable and constant. This constant ebb and flow makes scheduling adequate numbers of staff to handle peak travel times inefficient since it is likely that two hours later the crowds will have dissipated. This is especially true when you look at customs officers processing international arrivals and the challenge faced when three wide body planes arrive at the same time.

One way to more efficiently utilize staff time is to develop the ability to quickly move staffing resources across multiple terminals or even airports to where they are most needed. This can be accomplished by moving towards a virtualization of the screening process and instead of having x-ray screeners sit at a checkpoint they could operate remotely either at a centralized facility or even from home. There are several challenges for this type of approach ranging from the technical aspects of transmitting the imagery, communicating with physical staff for secondary screening, remote control of screening equipment to the procedural aspects such as the interruption of the rotation of screening staff between stations to fight fatigue to the logistical aspects of optimizing staffing allocation if part of the checkpoint is operated virtually. All of those issues though, could be outweighed by the gains in productivity of aggressively implementing this type of virtualized screening.

In a centralized model or decentralized remote model you have the ability to quickly allocate assets to where the need is greatest. The peak loading times of airports generally follow repeatable diurnal variations that are then repeated across multiple time zones, so for instance the peak time for morning travel in the US may be 0700 to 0900 starting on the East Coast then starting an hour later in the Central time zone, and so on until the end of the morning peak on the West Coast at 0900 which correlates to 1200 East Coast time. What this approach allows you to do is continually move staff across multiple time zones where the need is greatest.

Furthermore, there is evidence that there are certain screeners who can be considered “super screeners” based upon their performance in TSA’s quality control measure Threat Image Projection (TIP) program that superimposes a threat on a bag and records the screener’s detection rate. These super screeners hardly ever have to rerun a bag and rarely miss a TIP image. A centralized model would allow better distribution of these screeners’ capabilities to those areas that are most in need. Also, a model that allows remote screening from home could be a powerful recruitment and retention tool for super screeners and those screeners who have proven their capabilities. There are multiple variations of this approach and some may be more effective than others. Maybe the centralized staff only check those bags flagged as anomalies in order to avoid the wait for a supervisor to come over and look at the bag, or maybe it is best used in checked baggage screening for “on-screen resolution” of automatic target recognition algorithm detections. Regardless the benefits of creating a reservoir of staff that can be quickly and dynamically allocated where the need is greatest would be extremely valuable and should be explored.

One area where this concept holds some of the most promise and may be a valuable proof-of-concept pilot of the centralized screening model in government is during customs screening. A common scenario for international travelers who have the bad luck to arrive at a peak time is to find interminably long lines waiting for them at the customs checkpoint. If you were to combine an RBS approach to customs screening along with establishing the ability to virtually process and interview, potentially through use of a webcam and monitor, low risk passengers you would have the ability to rapidly open all available customs processing lines at an airport during peak time. Once the peak passed, the remote staff could instantaneously be reallocated to another airport decreasing the overhead of paying for high staffing levels at low throughput times and significantly increasing staff utilization levels while vastly improving the passenger experience and throughput.

The challenges that the aviation security industry will face as threats evolve and passenger levels increase make it essential that we be open to new ideas, new technologies and leverage the innovations from other sectors. There is not one silver bullet that will solve the challenges that we face, but with diligence and determination there are several promising ideas that could revolutionize how we get ready to fly and help the aviation industry become the economic engine of growth that it can be without costs of security unnecessarily hindering it.

Paul Benda is a principal and Chief Technology Officer at GSIS, an international security and strategic advisory firm.