With exclusive technology licenses in hand, Liberty Defense within the next 18 months or so plans to bring new capabilities to body scanners deployed at airports worldwide that would improve threat detection and also reduce false alarms, and the relatively new company also plans to introduce technology that can scan a person’s shoes for threats as well.
And that’s not all.
Liberty Defense, a portfolio company of the Canadian investment firm Canaccord Genuity, is also nearing commercial introduction of a high-throughput non-intrusive imaging system to detect metallic and non-metallic threats in real-time hidden on persons as they enter critical infrastructure facilities, sports venues, schools and other places requiring high security.
For the Advanced Imaging (AIT) and shoe scanning technology, Liberty Defense licensed the technology from the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), which also received development funding from the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate. AIT is the name given by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration to the body scanners used at U.S. airports to scan for potential threat items hidden beneath a person’s clothing as the pass through the checkpoint.
For the AIT systems, Liberty Defense is looking to upgrade the antennas, introduce new algorithms and improve the image resolution for enhanced detection across the different areas of a person’s body and reduce the false alarm rate, which increases throughput, Bill Frain, Liberty’s CEO, told HSR during a telephone interview on May 7.
Frain pointed out that reducing false alarms also means fewer pat downs by Transportation Security Officers, which is in line with the agency’s new goal of minimizing contact with travelers amid concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The idea of upgrading existing AIT systems fits with a new Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) from TSA to provide near-term improvements for on-person screening.
“The TSA is specifically interested in development that will provide for near-term improvement of current security operations and capabilities,” the BAA says.
Frain said the BAA “validates that there is a program in place, which is what we’ve kind of been waiting for, that the TSA is looking at doing improvements to the existing footprint.”
The current AIT systems are based on millimeter wave technology and are supplied by Leidos [LDOS]. The HD-AIT technology licensed by Liberty Defense is also based on millimeter wave and Frain said it could be integrated into the existing AIT systems through an open architecture model working with another vendor or even the agency.
He also said the BAA works with Liberty Defense’s timeline for developing the antenna technology in the next 12 to 18 months.
The on-person screening BAA also says that TSA wants to examine shoe scanning technology, an area of interest for nearly 20 years following the failed attempt in December 2001 by British terrorist Richard Reid to detonate a bomb in his shoes during a flight from Paris to Miami.
TSA says it is looking to screen footwear without people having to remove their shoes. Given privacy concerns, just like with the AIT systems, TSA says an automated threat detection algorithm will be necessary. The agency also says that the shoe-screening system should either be integrated with current AIT systems or Walk-Through Metal Detectors, or be placed in front of these systems.
Liberty Defense is also planning to develop standalone and AIT-integrated footwear scanning systems with the millimeter wave shoe scanning technology licensed from PNNL, Frain said. For the AIT integration, Frain said the footwear scanner could potentially be integrated into the floor of the body scanner.
A stand-alone unit would be easier to field sooner due to not having to integrate the technology into an existing platform, he said.
The path forward for the shoe screening technology is similar to the HD-AIT in that it will take 12 to 18 months to complete commercial development, he said.
Frain earlier in his career was an executive with the Security and Detection business of L3Technologies. That business is now owned by Leidos. Frain said that when he was with L3, they worked with metal detection and trace detection technologies for scanning shoes for explosives threats but found that that the false alarms were always too high.
With the new millimeter wave technology licensed from PNNL, this the “closest to a real product that we’ve seen in a long time,” Frain said.
Liberty currently has about 14 employees and consultants working full-time and plans to hire another six in the next month or two to add more engineering and other talent, in particular as it ramps up development of its new millimeter wave technologies. Liberty has engineering operations in Atlanta for its HEXWAVE stand-off weapons detection product and the company is opening its headquarters in Boston, where it will also do the additional design and development of the new licensed millimeter wave technologies.
HEXWAVE, which is also based on millimeter wave technology, detects anomalies in real-time a person’s as he or she passes by a set of mobile panels at entry points. The system allows for continuous walk-through by people and can localize potential threats to make it easy for an operator to do a follow-on search.
The contactless system scans for metallic and non-metallic threats such as guns, improvised explosive devices, and other potential threats and hazards. HEXWAVE also provides automated threat detection to operators, letting them know exactly where a prohibited item is, Frain said.
The artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms that are part of HEXWAVE can distinguish a threat, such as a gun or drugs, from a non-threat, such as wallets, keys, cellphones and belts, based on the signature, he said.
Beta testing of HEXWAVE with a number of partners, including stadiums, airports, cruise ports, and others is slated to begin later this year and be ready for commercial availability in the second half of 2022. Frain said there is also interest in the product for theft prevention.
Frain said the non-metallic detection capabilities of HEXWAVE are a key differentiator from other competitors with similar products. One of those competitors is Evolv Technology, which is about to become publicly traded following a merger with NewHold Investment Corp. that values the company at $1.7 billion.
Evolv has deployed more than 400 units of its stand-off, high-throughput weapons detection technology, which has screened more than 50 million people worldwide.
Frain said the investment in Evolv demonstrates the significant interest in the market for products like HEXWAVE.
“The Evolv deal definitely certainly gives credibility to the market,” he said.