Report: Airport security can be improved with better screening technology

Nov 14, 2006 3:54 PM

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The best way to prevent terrorist attacks on airplanes may be to improve security screening of all travelers rather than just high-risk passengers, according to experts at Harvey Mudd College and MIT.

The report, "How Effective is Security Screening of Airline Passengers?" is authored by Susan E. Martonosi, a mathematics professor at Claremont, Calif.-based Harvey Mudd College, and Arnold Barnett of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It is based on the principles of Operations Research, or OR, a discipline that uses advanced analytical methods grounded in mathematics to make better decisions. From police dispatching to how the Pentagon deploys troops to how medical professionals stop outbreaks of disease, OR is used to try to make systems work more efficiently, CBS Broadcasting reports.

Martonosi and Barnett argue that a more effective way to prevent attacks might be to focus instead on improving the X-ray, metal and explosives detection technology used in airports.

Researchers at the University of Maryland are devloping technology that may be able to accomplish the improved passenger screening.

Maryland-based Pharad LLC is teaming with A. James Clark School of Engineering researchers from the University to further develop its weapons detection system, which scans people for weapons in open spaces -- such as airport, train, or subway terminals -- as they walk by.

"It is analogous to a video camera in the sense that it constantly sees and monitors a scene," Pharad President Austin Farnham says. "Except its eyes are wide-band, millimeter wave signals."

The system employs ceiling or wall-mounted sensors that send out radio- wave-like signals to analyze their surroundings. The sensors send data to a computer system, which uses algorithms to detect weapon "fingerprints" on the signals.

When guns, knives -- or eventually bombs and explosives -- are detected, the system sends an alert and a video feed to security.

Dr. K. J. Ray Liu, professor and associate chair of graduate studies and research in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Institute for Systems Research, is working with Pharad to develop the algorithm.

"This is a state-of-the-art signal processing algorithm that first detects if a weapon is present, then classifies what kind of weapon it is," Liu says.

Each weapon has a unique signature defined by a set of electromagnetic resonances that reflect differently depending on its physical makeup. Pharad is testing various weapons to develop a signature library.

"Right now we are still in the development phases; we still have more than a year of development work before it will be on the market," Farnham says.

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