Enhancing aviation security – How TSA is using technology, innovation, and collaboration to redefine screening operations

Posted: 4 February 2008 | Mike Golden, Assistant Administrator for Operational Process and Technology/Chief Information Officer/Chief Technology Officer, FAA | No comments yet

How TSA is using technology, innovation, and collaboration to redefine screening operations
The fundamental challenge of protecting passengers and transportation networks against an act of terrorism is a constantly changing, unpredictable threat environment. TSA knows that terrorists seek to exploit our weaknesses. We also know that terrorists attempt to adapt to the security measures we put into place. A static, fortress-like defense is not the answer.

The fundamental challenge of protecting passengers and transportation networks against an act of terrorism is a constantly changing, unpredictable threat environment. TSA knows that terrorists seek to exploit our weaknesses. We also know that terrorists attempt to adapt to the security measures we put into place. A static, fortress-like defense is not the answer.

While we apply what we learn from intelligence, from attacks of the past, and from other lessons learned around the world, we understand that terrorist activity is fundamentally not predictable in a statistical or actuarial way. We must, therefore, “anticipate the unexpected.” Our security approach must reflect the principles of flexibility, adaptability, and innovation.

TSA was established by Congress in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001, and charged with quickly standing up passenger and checked baggage screening operations at US commercial airports by the end of 2002. Five years later, TSA oversees security operations at more than 450 US federalised commercial airports. TSA is responsible for securing over 2,000 checkpoint lanes, with more than 2 million passengers passing through these checkpoints on an average day.

As the volume of air travel continues to grow and security operations evolve, TSA is also dedicated to preserving the quality of the passenger experience at the facilities that it oversees. During peak travel periods in 2007, TSA worked to decrease security checkpoint wait times. For instance, over Thanksgiving, average peak wait times at the nation’s top 40 airports rarely exceeded 13 minutes. The average peak wait times during this period actually decreased from the previous year.

In order to achieve these types of results while maintaining rigorous standards for screening and security operations, TSA relies heavily on disciplined innovation, diligent technology lifecycle management, and open partnership between the government, the Nation’s airports, and the aviation industry.

Innovation on the frontline: enhancements to checkpoint screening

TSA is perhaps most widely recognised by the public for its frontline screening operations, which rely heavily on a robust portfolio of checkpoint and checked baggage screening technologies. Likewise, technology is one critical component of our overarching security network that allows us to effectively confront the unpredictable nature of our enemies. During recent years, the security technology market has seen a dramatic increase in the rate at which technology providers are innovating. With this boom in the market, TSA has seized the opportunity to advance our operations by aggressively pursuing new technologies solutions that are characterised by better detection capabilities, increased system uptime, and decreased overall lifecycle costs.

Many passengers traveling through US airports see this innovation at work in both the technologies and operational concepts being employed in our frontline operations. In the past year alone, TSA has begun deploying multiple new operational concepts and screening technologies that we anticipate will drastically augment our screening capabilities at the checkpoint. Developments in operational concepts, which set the foundation for our screening processes, are being explored and will likely include integrating hostile intent screening into the overall passengers checkpoints process.

Enhancements to technology are numerous and varied. These include the development of web-based applications that support higher operational availability of our equipment, reduction in the size of equipment to promote flexibility and mobility, and the deployment of new technology types.

Amidst this innovation, however, it is equally important to note that TSA is steadfast in its dedication to minimising risk to airports, industry, and passengers. As we develop and deploy these concepts and technologies, we are working hand-in-hand with our partners at the Nation’s airports and across the aviation industry to ensure that all elements of our security operations meet high standards of stability, integrity, and reliability. Further, we look at screening processes holistically to verify that each layer of the security operations works in tandem with the other layers.

TSA has begun deploying three new checkpoint screening technologies at US airports: advanced technology X-ray (AT), whole body imagers (WBI), and bottled liquids scanners (BLS).

Advanced technology

Advanced Technology (AT) refers to the next generation of X-Ray equipment. AT will include complementary technologies to the traditional x-ray that add dimension and density to objects within a carry-on bag, providing Transportation Security Officers (TSO’s) with an improved capability to identify and detect concealed threats including explosives and explosive precursors. Other complementary technologies under consideration would provide automated detection to assist TSO’s with threat identification. These systems are based on penetration x-ray technology, which presents two-dimensional imagery for threat detection. As TSA deploys the AT systems they will enhance existing TIP Ready X-Ray (TRX) technology currently used at the security checkpoint.

Whole body imagers

TSA recently announced that it will test millimeter wave imaging and additional backscatter technology at some of the nation’s largest airport to include John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) in New York and Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) in California. Testing is currently underway at Phoenix Sky-harbor International Airport (PHX) in Phoenix, Arizona. Millimeter Wave Technology is a form of body-imaging technology that uses non-ionising electromagnetic waves to generate an image based on the energy reflected from the body. Beams of radio frequency (RF) energy, in the millimeter wave spectrum, are projected over the body’s surface at high speed from two antennas simultaneously as they rotate around the body.

By using passenger imaging technology, TSA is able to quickly, unobtrusively and without physical contact screen passengers for prohibited items, detecting weapons, explosives and other metallic and non-metallic threats hidden under layers of clothing. Privacy and security are not mutually exclusive and TSA has built privacy into the foundation of whole body imaging technologies.

Bottled liquids scanner

Bottled Liquids Scanners (BLS) are hand-held devices which detect specific chemical vapors emitting from a bottle or other container. They are detected by aiming the device’s sensor at the bottle for a designated time period. The challenges of screening bottles for concealed explosives or flammable liquids have been explored for a decade plus, but previous technology was not operationally viable due to commonalities in materials and high false alarm rates in the technology. The BLS technology will support checkpoint screening to further strengthen TSA’s ability to identify threats at passenger checkpoints.

Diligence in lifecycle management: introducing the Transportation Security Integration Facility (TSIF)

TSA is making strides in aggressively managing the lifecycle of our security technology and operational concepts to expedite their deployment to our airports and minimise maintenance costs and operational risks to TSA, our partners, and the public.

In mid-2008, TSA will commission the Transportation Security Integration Facility (TSIF), a state-of-the-art facility designed to provide simulated real time, integrated operations. It will be managed by TSA personnel with expertise in operational concept development and testing of security screening systems that will be implemented at airports nationwide. This facility will support comprehensive testing of new and emerging technologies, procedural assessments, and analyses and operational concepts prior to their deployment at airports. By adding the TSIF to currently existing layers of pre-deployment operations, TSA will better mitigate challenges arising from the fact that space constraints and integration limitations make many airports less than optimal environments for operational testing of new technologies and concepts.

The TSIF will establish a network of interfacing systems and minimise the risk presented in a live environment when testing complex operational processes. The TSIF will test the integrated components of passenger screening and baggage screening technologies in an operational environment; however, TSIF will also have the capacity to accommodate new technology that are not yet deployed to airports. For example, new baggage screening technology capabilities are expanding throughput to allow bags to be processed at more than 1,400 bags per hour. As we look to test these capabilities, the TSIF will provide an environment that allows us to exceed the current processing capacity of many airports. Currently airports average between 400 and 500 bags per hour. The TSIR will allow TSA to simulate and test this added throughput capacity before implementing the enhancement at our airports.

TSIF will provide insight not only into whether technologies or concepts meet their stated objectives on a stand-alone basis, but also into how well they fit into larger operational environments, airport infrastructures and operational capacities. The TSIF can accommodate full in-line checked baggage and passenger screening environments, allowing TSA to test equipment, back-end systems and operational concepts individually and as a part of a larger screening process.

TSIF will simulate outbound passenger, baggage and cargo movement from arrival through departure for full system testing capability. This will support the development and evaluation of concepts of operation, Measures of Performance (MOPs), Measures of Effectiveness (MOEs) of individual systems and integrated system-of-systems configurations. Currently, TSA is aiming to have initial testing capability in the summer of 2008 and to have the facility fully operational by the fall of 2008.

This new facility is the next step in increasing the rate at which TSA can innovate, develop, test, certify and deploy new technologies and operational concepts. The result for TSA will be an increased capacity to develop and test new creative concepts without requiring airports to incur much of the risk that is inherent in innovation. This TSIF will help TSA determine an optimal strategy for rolling out new technology with minimal interruptions to day-to-day operations. This will expedite the verification of technologies and concepts minimise the time required to fully deploy and invite opportunities to realise cost savings in the technology lifecycle.

Open and productive partnership: TSA’s new airport funding process

As new technologies and operational concepts emerge, funding these developments remains of great importance for the government, the airports, and the industry alike. To ensure that the funding process promotes partnership between TSA and airports as well as transparency into the TSA’s operations, TSA developed and implemented a new requirements process that will allow airports to request funding and/or equipment for their checked baggage screening systems. The new application process was issued to Airport Operators earlier this year, and will apply to FY 2009 applications for consideration.

In accordance with the new requirements process, airports will now submit funding applications with their initial design plans for enhancing and expanding their baggage screening operations. This will require that airports look holistically at their operations and submit applications for airport-wide plans. This process will provide TSA with a more complete understanding of how each airport’s operations are designed and how each individual component fits into and contributes to the overall design.

This new process is founded in the idea that baggage screening operations are a comprehensive, interactive network, rather than a collection of individual security components. This view of security operations will provide transparency for TSA into each airports plans and needs, which will then facilitate prioritisation of investments. Airports will also see an increase in transparency into TSA’s funding process through these new applications standards as they facilitate increased collaboration between the government and the airports.

The new funding process will continue to ensure that each airport’s design strategy will achieve a maximum return on the investment made by the government, the airports, and the industry. Airports seeking to learn more about the new design standards to visit TSA’s website at: asac/index.shtm

TSA’s security strategy: looking towards the future

Enhancements in technology, improvements in lifecycle management and the promotion of partnerships combined with the layers of TSA’s security operations promote an innovative, effective strategy for counteracting the threats that our Nation’s transportation systems face everyday. This strategy keeps TSA at the forefront of aviation security while yielding significant benefit to our partners at the airports and in industry. In only five years, TSA has arrived at an outstanding level of organisational maturity and our agency is committed to continuing efforts to enhance our security operations into the future.

About the author

Mike Golden is TSA’s Assistant Administrator, Operational Process and Technology. In this role, he serves as the agency’s Chief Information Officer and Chief Technology Officer overseeing the delivery of IT products and services that support the mission and business IT requirements for every office throughout TSA and the implementation and development of security technologies across several modes of transportation.

Golden has a proven track record of deploying practical technology security measures that can be quickly implemented, and several of the checkpoint improvements he brought forward after 9/11 are in broad use today.

In December 2006, Golden joined TSA from Southwest Airlines, where he most recently served as senior director of Airport Security Technologies. In his 20-plus years at Southwest, he started the airline’s Technical Services Department, created its first centralised purchasing system and created the carrier’s Airport Security Technology department.

He is well-known in the industry and has participated on several government committees and panels, including TSA’s Scientific Advisory Panel and Bag Screening Investment Study. He also has worked with the departments of Defense and Energy on cargo and port security technologies.

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