Airport security meets science fiction

GE exec discusses an effort to modernize airport security that's straight out of the movie "Total Recall."

Stefanie Olsen
Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
3 min read
MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.--In 1990, the science fiction movie "Total Recall" offered a vision of the future of airport security.

Arnold Schwarzenegger's character in the film glides through security in minutes, checked by a full-body X-ray with shoes on and carry-on in hand. He doesn't step through a bulky X-ray machine, he doesn't take off his belt, he doesn't even have to empty his pockets of loose change.

In 2006, that's not so far from reality.

Yotam Margalit, the director of marketing for General Electric's homeland security group, offered details Wednesday of a project intended to modernize security at San Francisco International Airport (SFO).

Margalit, speaking at the two-day FAA/NASA/Industry Airport Planning Workshop, said that for about a year, GE has run a working laboratory at SFO called the "checkpoint of the future." It uses a sensor network and a so-called computerized tomography system (which uses a series of X-ray images to create a 3D image) to scan luggage for bombs. It also uses iris-scanning and finger-scanning technology to identify passengers and check for residue from explosives. It takes that and other information and uses mathematical algorithms to calculate the potential threat posed by any given passenger.

With this system, a passenger's laptop computer can stay in its bag, his or her shoes can stay on, and aggravating bottlenecks at airport security check-ins can become a thing of the past.

"We want to find the concept of operation that's going to yield a high rate of detection and low rate of false positives and have it flow so that it takes passengers 20 or 30 seconds to do everything," Margalit said.

GE's lab has yet to check real passengers, only volunteers, but the company hopes to eventually open the lab as a permanent checkpoint at SFO, according to Margalit.

GE's project was one of many discussed at the workshop, which drew airport-industry executives and government officials from around the world. Much of the summit was devoted to talking about new technology and airports of tomorrow, but it often turned to the biggest obstacle of modernization: getting government approval for new technology.

"The technology is here. The real challenge comes with policy and politics," said Dennis Roberts, director of airport planning and programming at the Federal Aviation Administration.

Still, technology projects are under way at airports all over the country.

Dallas Love Field in Texas announced a security project on Thursday that creates an interoperable system for local, state and federal agencies to communicate in an emergency. The project, funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, gives officials access to secure voice, video and data communication software, through applications like instant messaging and devices like PDAs.

GE's kiosk at SFO is more futuristic. It works roughly like this: A passenger walks up and stands on a platform. That underlying platform emits a radio frequency signal into the traveler's shoes, checking for explosive molecules. The passenger also presses a button in front of him, which takes a sample of finger oil and analyzes it for bomb residues within seconds. An iris and fingerprint scanner verifies the person's identity.

Tying all these sensors and X-rays together is a communication protocol GE hopes to establish as a standard in airport security.

GE created an algorithm called Detection Systems Fusion Protocol (DSFP), which calculates the probability of threat detection. The system would show a "threat probability meter," which estimates the likelihood of a threat or false positive for security officials.

In the system, sensors--anything from big X-rays to small devices that can sniff a laptop for bombs--are networked to a centralized database and the data collected from each sensor is run through the DSFP.

"At SFO," said Margolit, "we've placed a lot of different tech and sensors and basically we're trying to find the secret sauce to a touchless detection system."