A next-generation screening system for carry-ons at Boston Logan International Airport is being piloted to see if it can speed up the baggage check process for Transportation Security Administration officers and travelers alike.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate partnered with Integrated Defense Security Solutions and Halo X-ray Technologies to test a system that combines existing technology to better screen travelers’ bags and upgrade the threat-detection algorithm. With the power of advanced x-rays, the hybrid system is designed to give a TSA officer a 3D view of a traveler’s bag that can help quickly identify what’s inside.
“As the system improves and a fully developed algorithm is added, this should reduce the physical burden on [Transportation Security Officers] so they can depend on the algorithm to correctly identify threats and resolve false alarms without having to conduct as many bag inspections,” said John Fortune, the office’s Screening at Speed program manager, in a statement to Federal Times. “This should minimize stress and allow them to complete their work more efficiently.”
TSA is testing the technology through May, and the main goal is to collect enough data from roughly 10,000 bag scans to inform the algorithm before it is scaled to aviation security and perhaps even other uses, like screening at border checkpoints.
The project also has implications for TSO safety, which is high priority for the agency, Bob Allison, TSA’s federal security director for Massachusetts, told Federal Times in a statement.
“While the fully developed technology should help make their jobs more efficient, the greatest impact to their safety will be the reduction in stress from resolving bag scan alarms, or dealing with uncooperative passengers who don’t want their bags searched,” he said.
Here’s how it works: the two systems in this solution are Computed Tomography x-ray, similar to that used in CAT-scans at a hospital, and the newer x-ray diffraction. Diffraction can offer a TSO more granular information about what types of materials might be in a traveler’s suitcase and even what they are made of.
Consider this analogy that Halo X-ray Technologies CEO Simon Godber gave in an interview to explain the difference: imagine something made up of Lego blocks. Less advanced technology may only be able to determine that an item is made of Legos, but not what the actual item is, like say, a toy spaceship or a model car.
“With x-ray diffraction, if you build a different structure, it will tell you it’s something different,” he said. “And that’s the fundamental difference between them.”
X-ray diffraction has been around for decades, but it’s typically been lab-bound because of how long it takes to generate sufficient data on it, Godber said, though “it’s the gold standard for materials identification.”
“It would normally take 20 minutes to several hours to be able to achieve the signal that you need to be able to classify the material,” he said. “When you’re in a laboratory, that sort of timeframe is not a problem. When you’re in the real world, that obviously clearly is.”
Integrated Defense Security Solutions did not respond to requests for comment.
Impact on the workforce
During the pandemic, TSA officers were considered essential workers who faced risk of coronavirus and understaffing while their pay has lagged for years.
For the 50,000 TSA officers who collectively screen approximately 4.9 million carry-on bags daily across America’s airports, this technology will help reduce the cognitive load imposed by having to re-screen bags. The technology is not likely to really change what the TSA officers’ work station physically looks like, but workers will feel the impact in the reduced rate of “dud” alerts.
The Department of Homeland Security would not say what the current false alarm rate is due to security concerns about sharing that information publicly.
“It automates alarm resolution,” said Barbara Zylinski, a U.S.-based consultant for Halo. “It can add to checkpoint efficiencies because it’s going to increase the throughput, maybe give you fewer bags or fewer belongings going into recheck.”
The technology, once finalized, is expected to cost significantly less than the current cost of CT x-ray use at a checkpoint, Godber said, though he did not offer specific figures.
Godber added that it has been with the support of DHS’ Science and Technology Directorate that this difficult technology is able to be matured from paper concept to commercial product. The directorate is an office that serves as the science advisor to the secretary and as the research and development arm of the department.
In 2024, this office is looking at a proposed decrease in funding levels by about $13 million, according to the president’s budget request.
TSA, by contrast, is slated for a funding increase in 2024 of $1.6B, of which $70.4 million is planned for to procuring 86 CT systems.
On April 12, the agency announced it awarded three orders for a combined total value of up to $1.3 billion for CT scanners to be in use this summer.
There are approximately 634 CT units currently installed, according to TSA.
Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.