Early next year Customs and Border Protection (CBP) expects to request proposals in 2017 for a biometric exit system that will be begin to be deployed at airports in the U.S. in 2018, a senior agency officials says.

CBP released a Request for Information (RFI) on June 20 for its Biometric Exit Program to obtain feedback from industry on the best way to acquire a solution, with a Request for Proposal (RFP) slated for 2017 and final award in 2018 leading to deployment of an exit solution at international airports in the U.S., says John Wagner, deputy Assistant Commissioner for the Office of Field Operations.  Deployments will commence in late 2018 but how many airports initially is unknown at this time, Wagner says at the annual AFCEA Homeland Security Conference.

CBP is leaning toward using facial recognition for its air exit solution although Wagner says fingerprints are still an option. It comes down to the most flexible and “quickest” technology, he says.

Earlier this month CBP began a test of facial comparison technology on a daily flight out of Hartsfield Jackson Airport in Atlanta, a project that Wagner says will inform the agency’s final requirements for a biometric air exit solution and allow release of the RFP next year with details on the solution.

The test in Atlanta involves the capture of facial images of all travelers departing the airport on one daily flight to Japan. The agency will test the ability of its information systems to compare images of the travelers against previously provided images in an automated fashion.

Wagner says the facial comparison testing is happening in real-time and images captured at the boarding gate are matched against what travelers previously provided to the agency.

The testing in Atlanta could expand to additional locations, Wagner says.

Once a biometric air exit system is designed and deployed, it will have “implications” for inbound travelers, Wagner says. It will mean the inbound processing will be reengineered, he says.

CBP currently collects fingerprints and facial images of foreign nationals arriving in the U.S. to ensure that their biometrics match the data on their electronic passports. Congress has mandated a biometric exit system for years but the Department of Homeland Security until recently has maintained that implementing such a system would be costly and difficult to do without hindering flight schedules. Airports don’t have the same infrastructure for exit processing as they do for entry processing.

DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson earlier this year committed CBP to implement at biometric exit solution at U.S. airports serving international flights beginning in 2018. The deployments are supported by $1 billion in new visa fees that Congress authorized in the FY ’16 federal spending bill over 10 years.

Currently CBP relies on biographic exit data to ensure that foreign nationals have departed the U.S. according to the terms of their visas. Adding a biometric component to the exit procedures gives the agency greater assurance that the person leaving the country is the same person that arrived in the U.S. previously.

“The goal of a biometric exit program is to ensure that a traveler could not depart as an impostor (i.e., use someone else’s travel documents/identity when departing) or have someone depart on his or her behalf (i.e., someone else uses the supposed traveler’s documents),” says the RFI. “Biometrics offer a greater degree of assurance that the individual departing the United States is who he or she claims to be.”

Unisys [UIS] has been integrating a number of biometric arrival and departure pilot tests for CBP at several airports and a land port of entry as the agency tries to figure out what technologies work best in what environments and without disrupting the flow of travel. The agency didn’t disclose the integrator or technologies for the new pilot in Atlanta but a CBP spokesman says the use of a specific company for the testing “should not be taken as an indication of future CBP procurement plans.”

In addition to testing the facial comparison technology, the test in Atlanta will examine the re-architecture of the agency’s data systems to process departure data and support the face recognition technology. It will also test the concept of operations for biometric exit in airports. The test will run until Sept. 30.

CBP is currently conducting biometric exit tests using handheld fingerprint technology at 10 airports including Atlanta. However, the agency has said this BE-Mobile pilot is labor intensive and costly and is more likely to be applicable for smaller airports with few international departures.

CBP is also conducing facial comparison tests at two airports—Dulles International and John F. Kennedy International—for arriving international travelers.

Ultimately CBP wants to deploy a solution “where all foreign national requiring collection of biometrics on entry have biometrics collected on exit for all travel modalities: air, land and sea,” CBP’s RFI says. Airports are the first priority but “As solutions are deployed and mature over time, CBP will expand to other travel modalities including land and sea,” it says.