Working to meet Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson’s aggressive timeline to begin deploying in 2018 biometric technology to help verify the departure of foreign nationals from U.S. airports, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) this year plans to pilot test a biometric exit capability that will resemble the permanent solution, says a senior agency official.

CBP is currently designing the concept of operations for the biometric air exit solution and will launch  a pilot this summer or fall to help build to the eventual deployment, John Wagner, CBP’s deputy assistant commissioner for the Office of Field Operations, says at the annual Connect:ID conference.

In addition to the public-facing technology deployment, Wagner says CBP is also examining its back end infrastructure and other networking requirements.

DHS’ current enterprise wide biometric matching capability is based on fingerprints and the department is planning to add future modalities in the future, in particular face and iris images. Wagner says that CBP is considering using fingerprint, face or iris biometrics for the capture portion of the biometric air exit solution but that given the agency currently collects fingerprints for inbound foreign national “that’s kind of the logical place to start with. [That] Doesn’t mean its going to be the final answer but that’s probably our easiest batch to get up and running with and the capture technology is getting more flexible to use from a passenger ease and understanding of how to submit that to us rather than having an officer there saying, ‘Okay, I need your left thumb, no, you’re other left.’ You’ve got language issues, cultural issues and you’ve got to have a technology that can easily be used.”

CBP is currently pilot testing smart phone-sized fingerprint capture devices at 10 large U.S. airports to verify the identities of departing foreign nationals. The BE-Mobile project began last summer and so far about 18,000 biometric queries have been run, Wagner says, adding that the agency is looking for funding to potentially expand the number of airports involved in the program.

Wagner and others at CBP have cautioned that BE-Mobile is unlikely to be the biometric exit solution at large international airports because it is labor intensive and thus very expensive. Instead, the use of handheld devices to verify the identities of foreign national leaving the U.S. by plane is probably a better solution at small and medium-size airports where there are fewer daily international departing flights, they say.

Still, CBP is looking for mobility in its air exit solutions at large airports.

Mike Hardin, deputy director of CBP’s Entry/Exit Transformation Office, tells attendees that the biometric capture solution that is deployed at the larger airports “will not be fixed in place.” He adds that the devices that are used will likely be “easily moveable to one gate or another.”

The need for portability stems from the fact that departure gates for outbound international flights from U.S. airports are mixed with domestic flights and can also change depending on scheduling. Without adopting a portable concept of operations, CBP might have to invest in more fixed infrastructure at more gates.

The mandate for a biometric air exit solution has been in place for more than a decade and at one time the Department of Homeland Security maintained that it would be cost prohibitive to try and implement a solution. But advances in technology such as contactless fingerprint capture as well as a more concerted effort by CBP and the department to move toward a deployable solution makes it seem that routine biometric air exit capabilities are just around the corner.

The remaining question, and one of the most difficult to answer, is exactly where to put the biometric capture devices. Wagner says it will likely be at or near the boarding gate to better ensure that that once a person has had their biometrics checked he or she actually boards the plane.

Going forward, Wagner says “We need to finish the design, launch it, and [we] need cooperation and buy in of the travel industry and then start moving toward it. So I’m confident we can make it. It’s going to be hard to do but we can do it.”

One congressional staffer at Connect:ID said Congress is supportive of CBP’s efforts to implement a biometric air exit solution but added that there needs to be high-level leadership within DHS on this and other biometric efforts within the department.

“The big picture here is…we want to see that departmental leadership,” Gene Hamilton, general counsel for Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who is the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration & the National Interest. “You want to see someone at the secretary level or maybe slightly below spearheading this effort.”

Congress last December approved a spending bill that authorizes $1 billion in fee increases over 10 years to pay for the implementation of biometric exit systems.

Beyond its own recent pilot projects and some others done more than several years ago, CBP has been aided in its efforts to establish a biometric air exit system by a separate project with the DHS Science and Technology Directorate, the Air Entry/Exit Reengineering (AEER) Apex effort. At a test facility in Maryland, S&T in partnership with CBP has performed laboratory analyses and scenario testing of face, finger and iris recognition technology and biometric exit concepts of operation using 1,551 volunteers that demographically represented the traveling public.

The aim of the AEER testing was not to select technology vendors that might best meet CBP’s needs but rather “identify a combination of modality, capture method, and process that could biometrically verify 97 percent of departing” foreign national travelers in line with federal mandates without impacting the operations of airports and airlines and with minimal staffing needs, S&T tells HSR.

S&T says that the project identified  various combinations of biometrics, capture methods and processes that can attain the 97 percent verification rate and support boarding 300 passengers in 40 minutes, which is a “common airline industry standard.”

One of the key lessons learned in the exit portion of the AEER scenario testing was making sure that the travelers understood how to interact with the biometric capture technologies to ensure ease of use. This came down to “instructional cues/ feedback to travelers,” S&T says.

Arun Vemery, S&T’s AEER project leader, says about the testing that “With few exceptions, biometric collection and matching systems perform very well, but what sets some concepts apart form others—what really drives or inhibits overall system performance—is not usually the technology itself, but rather the degree to which it can be seamlessly integrated into trusted, familiar, intuitive, and user-friendly processes.”

In an email response to questions from HSR, Vemery says industry needs to focus on the “human factors engineering…to win over users and front-line operators.”

Vemery also warns that bad actors will also work to undermine any new technology deployments such as a biometric air exit system “so a parallel focus on education along with data privacy, governance, and security are key, particularly in the mobile arena.”

The AEER project is currently switching focus from the exit process to the entry system. S&T says it is working with CBP “to identify and test technologies that DHS can leverage to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the international arrivals process.”