Computed tomography-based scanning systems are the technology of the future for checkpoint screening of carry-on items and the plan is to begin buying the systems within a year as long as detection standards are met, says the head of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
Testing and evaluation of the CT scanners to meet new detection standards is expected to be completed by the end of next summer and the “hope is to begin deploying systems right after that,” David Pekoske, the TSA Administrator, says at a recent aviation security conference. He later told HSR that TSA plans to ask Congress to reprogram funds in its FY ’18 budget to kick-start the procurement of the CT systems, which provide operators with a better look of what’s inside carry-on bags and eventually may lead to automated detection of explosives and potentially other threats concealed inside the bags and electronic devices.
Pekoske declined to say how much TSA hopes to reprogram for CT systems in FY ’18, noting that it first has to be asked of Congress. While fiscal year 2018 began Oct. 1, TSA, like the rest of the federal government, is operating under a continuing resolution that funds activities at FY ’17 levels.
TSA requested $53 million in acquisition funding for FY ’18 and both the House and Senate appropriators in separate mark ups have agreed to the proposal, which only provides about $4 million for checkpoint activities spread across a number of programs. A reprogramming would be needed to permit the agency to spend more than $4 million on checkpoint technologies.
In FY ’17, Congress allowed TSA to reprogram $15 million toward its ongoing CT efforts so that it could award algorithm development contracts to four companies that hope to sell their CT systems to the agency for checkpoint screening. Pekoske declined to say how much he plans to ask Congress to reprogram toward CT purchases in FY ’18 but said it will be more than $15 million.
The companies that are working under TSA contracts to develop algorithms that meet the agency’s detection standards are Analogic [ALOG], Integrated Defense & Security Solutions (IDSS), L3 Technologies [LLL] and Smiths Detection. TSA is currently evaluating CT systems made by IDSS and L3 at two airports in the U.S. as part of data collection efforts.
Early in 2018, TSA is expected to begin evaluating Analogic’s CT system at an airport. That evaluation will include integration with an Automated Screening Lane (ASL), which includes mechanized tables and multiple divestment stations for faster ingress and egress of bins into and out of the scanning machine. The ASLs also feature automated bin return systems, to save Transportation Security Officers for more important duties, and divert stations to enable secondary screening of suspect bags without having to put them through the primary scanner again, which holds up the screening of other bags and items.
Steve Karoly, acting assistant commissioner for Requirements and Capabilities Analysis at TSA, says that the agency next year hopes to demonstrate multiple CT systems with ASLs as part of its ongoing evaluations of both technologies. Pekoske and Karoly spoke Dec. 5 at the American Association of Airport Executives annual aviation security summit in Arlington, Va.
The CT systems for checkpoints have also been tested, and in some cases, operated in international airports. The technology is behind scanners used to quickly, and automatically, screen checked bags for explosives.
“It’s not exactly new to airport screening,” Pekoske tells attendees.
Pekoske says that it will take a few years to fully deploy the CT systems at checkpoints and in some cases, depending on space constraints and other considerations, the existing Advanced Technology (AT) X-Ray systems that screen carry-on bags will continue to be used. It won’t take more than five years to deploy the CT systems, he tells reporters on the sidelines of the conference.
Pekoske tells attendees that the CT systems will ultimately improve operating procedures and performance of Transportation Security Officers. He also says the CT systems offer “significant” detection capabilities over the current AT X-Ray systems, adding that eventually, just like with checked bags, the CT systems at the checkpoint will provide automatic detection of threats and the bag will just keep moving through the screening lane, improving security and the passenger experience.
The CT systems still need to go through development of the machine learning algorithms to be able to detect the prohibited items that TSA doesn’t want on aircraft, Pekoske says. Most of this development should be done by the end of summer, 2018, he says.
In late November, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, told Acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke the CT technology should be deployed to airport checkpoints now to deal with evolving threats. In addition to the need to further algorithm development, Pekoske says at the conference that currently it takes an operator about 12 seconds to clear a bag at a checkpoint using a CT system versus eight seconds for an AT X-Ray, adding that this lengthier screening time needs to come down.
Joseph Paresi, CEO of IDSS, who was in the audience, commented to Pekoske that the technology is ready for deployment now and that the time it takes for operators to review bags in the CT system will decline as they become more experienced. He also told the TSA chief that there are certain images where an operator just can’t see a threat with an AT X-Ray system that is visible with a CT system regardless of how much training security officers receive.
Paresi also said that delays by TSA in awarding contracts to companies are ready to produce and deliver CT systems for checkpoint screening is hurting suppliers.
PreCheck, Global Entry Discussions
On another matter, Pekoske says he has discussed with Kevin McAleenan, the acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the possibility of merging TSA’s PreCheck trusted traveler program with CBP’s Global Entry known traveler program as a way to create efficiencies and make it easier for people that want to participate in the programs.
Merging the two programs would reduce duplication of systems and allow travelers to register once, rather than multiple times, to participate, he says.
The concept hasn’t gone beyond the discussion stage, Pekoske says.
PreCheck allows travelers who have voluntarily enrolled to not have to always divest their outerwear and electronic devices at the checkpoint, and to leave their shoes on. In return, these travelers voluntarily give TSA information about themselves that allows the agency to vet these people routinely for any potential concerns.
Global Entry allows enrolled U.S. citizens and Green Card holders to receive expedited clearance through the customs process upon arrival to the U.S. on international flights. In some cases, it also allows expedited entry into other countries that have reciprocal agreements with CBP.