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New RFID tech would track airport passengers

RFID tags would be issued to passengers at check-in to track their movements before departure.

The inventors of a new monitoring system that uses RFID tags claim it could improve airport security by tracking passengers as they mingle in the departure lounge.

The plan is to issue an RFID (radio frequency identification) tag to every passenger at check-in so human traffic can be monitored throughout the airport via transponders and video cameras.

Paul Brennan, an electrical engineer at University College London, heads the project, which features an RFID technology called Optag. Funded by the European Union, the technology is being developed by a consortium of European companies and the university. Brennan told that a prototype RFID tag will be tested in an airport in Hungary next month.

Brennan said that if the trials in Hungary are a success and the technology attracts customers, it could arrive in airports within two years.

Brennan said Optag has been designed to improve airport security by virtue of its ability to track the movement of suspicious passengers, which would enable security personnel to bar them from entering restricted areas.

The ability to locate individuals could also aid airports in an evacuation situation, he said, and in finding lost children and passengers who are late to the departure gate.

Optag's big range, big challenges
Optag is different from its RFID predecessors in that standard RFID devices have a range of only a few centimeters. Optag, by contrast, has a range of 10 to 20 meters, and its wearer can be located within a radius of 1 meter, Brennan said.

The Optag project is now nearing completion but there are still some sizeable hurdles to real-world implementation, such as figuring out how to get the tags to operate properly in an airport, developing a system that ensures people will wear them, and allaying concerns over civil liberty infringements, said Brennan.

He added the device is "not intended to know who's doing what, although it might be that security needs to pinpoint certain individuals."

The design of the device that would contain the Optag is still not finalized. Brennan said RFID-tagged wristbands could be used but noted that they can be taken off and swapped between individuals.

A possible option is to use cameras to scan the tag-wearer's face and verify that it matches the correct Optag ID, but such a system could be used only in certain areas of an airport, according to Brennan.

Brennan said installation of the systems required to run Optag would also be very disruptive to existing airports. Installation could occur easily, however, at airports under construction, such Heathrow's T5.

As currently configured, the tag does not store any data but might incorporate biometric data in the future, Brennan added.

Optag is primarily aimed at improving airport security, but Brennan said "anywhere where a large number of people are, this has applications."

Gemma Simpson of reported from London.