Screening technology currently used to scan checked baggage at the nation’s airport at relatively high-speeds compared with the X-ray systems in use at checkpoints will be begin testing soon for checkpoint applications, the head of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) told a Senate panel on Tuesday.

TSA is looking to pilot test a computed tomography (CT)-based system this summer for checkpoint screening, Peter Neffenger, the agency’s administrator, told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger. Photo: TSA
TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger. Photo: TSA

CT systems are used as the primary screening method by TSA officers at airports to automatically scan checked baggage for explosives. Most of the systems in use are medium-speed and typically screen 500 or more bags per hour and include automated threat detection capabilities to alarm for explosives threats.

The suppliers of explosives detection systems to TSA for checked baggage screening are L-3 Communications [LLL], Leidos [LDOS], and Safran Group’s Morpho Detection business. L-3 and Morpho primarily supply medium-speed EDS systems to TSA while Leidos has most of the U.S. market for reduced-size systems that screen far fewer bags per hour.

In response to passenger wait times that began to increase earlier this year and then spiked before Memorial Day weekend, causing frustration among travelers, airports and airlines, TSA has been able to increase its staffing to accommodate higher airline travel volume. But Neffenger is also looking to make technology changes at checkpoints that will allow security effectiveness to be maintained or increased while accommodating forecasts of continued increasing traffic in airline passengers.

TSA, working with Delta Airlines [DAL], last month installed two automated screening lanes at a checkpoint terminal in Atlanta’s Hartsfield Jackson International Airport. These new lanes, which Neffenger said will be rolling out to additional airports in the coming months, feature motorized conveyor belts instead of the traditional rollers, automatic bin returns, multiple passenger divesting stations, and RFID tags in bins that link a passenger to their carry-on bags, and a diversion area for bags that are flagged for additional screening instead of being rescreened by the same X-ray system and thus holding up the line.

The new automated lanes in Atlanta, which are already in use at many airports in Europe, are demonstrating a 30 percent improvement in passenger throughput, Neffenger said.

Neffenger said the “next phase” of these technology improvements is “to incorporate so called CAT Scan technology, computed tomography technology in the checkpoint.”

He said the agency has approved two CT systems for checkpoint use. Years ago, the agency approved the COBRA CT system, which is made by Analogic [ALOG], and tested it but never moved forward on using it for checkpoint screening. Analogic’s CT technology forms the core of L-3’s EDS systems.

In addition to the COBRA, which is rather large compared to the Advanced Technology X-ray systems used to screen carry-on bags at airport checkpoints currently, Analogic in May introduced a new CT-based scanner for checkpoint screening that takes up less real estate than the COBRA. Like the COBRA, Analogic’s new system features automated threat detection algorithms although this system hasn’t been tested by TSA yet.

The potential advantage of using a CT system at the checkpoint is not only higher screening speeds—Analogic says its new system cuts passenger wait times in half—but improved convenience. The company also says that the system, like the Cobra, would allow travelers to leave liquids and laptop computers in their bags

Neffenger said that the CT technology “gives us a much more defined ability to see what we’re looking [for]. It’s the system we use in checked baggage and it’s a substantial improvement over the X-ray.”

The second CT system TSA has approved for the checkpoint is unclear. Last year, L-3 introduced a compact CT system to screen carry-on bags.

The COBRA has been operationally tested at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport and is in use at London’s Luton Airport.

Analogic told Defense Daily that they are in communication with TSA currently about existing COBRA systems that are ready now for deployment, how to best accelerate CT technology at U.S. checkpoints, and the company’s plans to bring its new next-generation CT system to market.

Currently AT X-ray systems deployed by TSA are from Smiths Detection and OSI Systems [OSIS] Rapiscan Systems division. L-3 has supplied a small number of AT X-ray systems to the agency. The AT systems have automatic threat detection capabilities but are only certified for lower TSA threat tiers, which means that operators are still crucial in examining an X-ray image of a parcel and determining whether to let it pass or have another look. TSA wants technologies at the checkpoint that can automatically detect higher threat tiers.

Beyond Neffenger’s comments, TSA recently issued a draft Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) seeking white papers related to new carry-on screening solutions for airport checkpoints. Computed tomography is among the technologies the agency said are of interest in the announcement.

The agency says in the draft BAA it is interested in technical solutions that can get passenger throughput to at least 300 people and 600 items per hour through the checkpoint. Neffenger told the Senate panel that a standard TSA checkpoint screening lane accommodates between 150 to 160 people an hour while a PreCheck trusted traveler lane processes about 250 people per hour.

The PreCheck lanes are able to get more people through them in less time because these trusted travelers don’t have the same divesting requirements as others going through the security checks.

The Science and Technology Directorate within the Department of Homeland Security, working with TSA, on Monday issued a BAA for a high priority, five-year effort called the Apex Screening at Speed (SaS) effort.

“The end goal of the Apex SaS is to develop and demonstrate faster and more robust personal and personal item/carry-on technologies before the end of 2020,” says S&T’s BAA. The requirements include screening more than 300 people per hour per lane, detecting threats at the highest TSA standard—Tier IV—allowing people to leave outwear, shoes and belts on, leaving liquids of any quantity and electronics in bags, and significantly reducing false alarm rates.

Some of the technical topic areas contemplated in the Apex SaS BAA include CT systems, X-ray backscatter, nuclear quadrupole resonance, standoff trace detection, reconstruction and automated target recognition, integration at the checkpoint, millimeter wave imaging, and more.

TSA currently uses millimeter wave-based body scanners supplied by L-3 for primary screening at many airport checkpoints. There are a lot of small airports around the country that don’t have these Advanced Imaging Technology systems deployed but Neffenger told the panel that the agency is working to get more of these to the smaller airports that have the capabilities to handle the body scanners.

TSA is also looking to better integrate its security equipment and to this end is trying to find way to incorporate open systems architecture that would better allow machines to communicate with each other over a network and enable third party developers to bring additional capabilities to equipment through a plug-and-play type of approach.

Tuesday’s hearing also featured an update from DHS Inspector General John Roth, who dropped a bombshell a year ago when he questioned whether the automated threat recognition used in the TSA’s AIT systems were useful. Through testimony, release of unclassified report, and leaks to the media, the IG’s covert testing showed that more than 90 percent of the time its agents were able to get prohibited items through the body scanners.

Roth told the committee that in the past TSA fought his office’s efforts to audit performance whereas now the agency is embracing the oversight.

“As a result of our audit reports, and a vigorous response by DHS, TSA is now, for the first time in memory, critically assessing its deficiencies in an honest and objective light,” Roth told the committee. “TSA’s leadership has embraced the OIG’s oversight role and appears to be addressing vulnerabilities.”

A new round of covert testing by the IG’s office is planned for this summer, Roth said.

The IG’s findings a year ago coincided with Neffenger’s confirmation as the new TSA chief.  After reviewing the IG’s report and TSA operations, Neffenger said that the front line officers were under pressure to ensure passenger convenience at the sake of security. His reversal of that operating concept, combined with decreases in staffing and increases in passenger air travel volume, played a large role in the increased wait times of travelers at airports this year.