UPPER MARLBORO, Md.—The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in June began scenario testing at a facility here to evaluate the use of various biometric devices in passenger queuing processes at Customs checkpoints for entry and exit procedures for foreign travelers at the nation’s airports and is firming plans to lead to an acquisition effort, according to department officials.

The Air Entry and Exit Re-Engineering (AEER) project, which began just over a year ago and was disclosed last by DHS last summer, will eventually transition from scenario testing to field testing at an airport next year with the trial lasting into late 2015 or early 2016. Afterward, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) will review the results and plans to create an acquisition program in the FY ’17 budget request, DHS officials say in a briefing for media here on June 27.

The drive toward establishing a biometric air exit solution has been a goal for Congress since the 9/11 as most of the terrorists involved in the attacks that day were in the United States legally but had overstayed their visas. Under a program formerly known as US-VISIT, CBP uses fingerprint checks to verify the identities of select foreign nationals entering the U.S. but exit procedures only require biographic data to help verify that these travelers are departing the country.

Introducing a biometric check to the exit process—in airports initially—is expected to increase the ability of DHS to verify that an individual who entered the country legally has left the country.

Earlier Pilot Testing

DHS in 2009 at several airports pilot tested different options for biometric exit solutions with CBP and the Transportation Security Administration and found that it is technically feasible but costly, with estimates ranging from $3 billion to $9 billion to implement these solutions, largely because of high levels of staff needed to collect the biometrics. The upper end of the cost estimates includes seaports and last fall one congressman said implementation costs are now in the half a million dollar range.

In the case of the pilots managed by CBP, which used biometric jump kits, the 2009 tests required the use of seven officers in a jetway to process the appropriate foreign nationals to prevent any flight delays for a particular aircraft. CBP currently doesn’t have infrastructure dedicated to exit processing and the DHS officials at the test facility say that staffing model from the 2009 pilots doesn’t work for large airports that may have dozens of departing international flights in a matter of two hours.

Through the work at the test facility, CBP is looking to automate the biometrics collection process and not rely on having a lot of officers do it, at least in some of the concepts of operation being modeled, the officials say

The goals of the AEER program include finding ways to “enhance and or increase the current capacity and throughput in today’s entry processes at U.S. ports of entry [and] assess and make recommendations on a corresponding biometric exit process,” says Bob Burns, the program manager at the DHS Science and Technology (S&T) Directorate for the AEER project. He says the target in the tests is to match 97 percent of the departing “passengers” biometrics with their entry records.

While S&T is the lead for the first phase of the AEER effort, Burns’ team is working closely with key stakeholders, including CBP and airports and airlines as it moves forward so that all voice are being considered and accounted for, he says.

The AEER effort is an Apex project, which means it is a joint, collaborative, interdisciplinary effort with the goal of solving an operational problem of strategic importance. As DHS was working through the establishment of the AEER project, department officials spent several months going to 10 of the nation’s largest airports to understand CBP’s challenges and passenger concerns, Burns says.

The media briefing at the DHS Maryland Test Facility here was the fourth open house hosted by the department for AEER, which has generated a lot if interest, Burns says. Other open houses have included the department’s senior leadership, congressional staff, staff from the White House Office of Management and Budget, and officials from the National Institute of Standards and Technology and other government agencies, he says. DHS also briefed the American Civil Liberties Union, he says.

Testing Scenarios

In the test scenarios for the media, DHS set up in one test bay two CBP entry processing stations to examine the use of two different types of iris capture devices in addition to the standard fingerprint capture that CBP officers currently do. In another test bay, Burns’ team demonstrated two self boarding exit solutions designed to mimic airline boarding gates. There are self boarding gates at airports in Boston and Las Vegas that don’t have biometric devices integrated with the exit procedure, and in some foreign airports where face and iris images are captured of departing passengers.

In one of the self-boarding exit scenarios at the test facility the traveler’s boarding pass is scanned and, if necessary, the face and iris sensors are automatically triggered to quickly capture images. In the media demonstration, it took just seconds to transit the gate system before the test subjects moved on through the mock airline gate. In the other scenario, the boarding pass is scanned and if necessary, triggers an iris capture sensor. In this case, the iris system had cameras at two levels in order to account for different individual heights.

The testing allows S&T to evaluate different biometric modalities and different ways to use these modalities, Burns says.

Other exit concepts that DHS plans to test in addition to the self-boarding gate include passenger loading bridge, mobile operations, and centralized biometric capture.

Burns emphasizes that for now the tests, which include 13 commercially available biometric devices from multiple vendors, are aimed in part at testing specific biometric modalities, not technologies. Just because a vendor’s technology isn’t being tested at the facility has nothing to do with whether it could ultimately be part of an exit solution, he says, adding that additional biometric devices may be tested as well.

Among other factors being assessed are process changes, space constraints, connection times, and staffing levels, a key factor in controlling costs, Burns says. The test facility can also simulate different lighting levels, which vary from airport to airport and terminal to terminal.

The facility also includes an analysis lab where the scenarios can be monitored, recorded and analyzed in real-time to check passenger throughputs, sensor accuracy, biometric performance, and more. This also helps DHS better understand if operators or the passengers are having trouble using a particular device and then see if the issue can be mitigated, Burns says.

It’s likely that entry and exit process solutions will vary depending on a particular airport, the officials say. Mobile biometric devices may be adequate for smaller airports that take on fewer foreign travelers, they say.

Burns also says DHS has a team looking at the various costs, including life-cycle costs, as part of plans for a business case recommendation.