Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Administrator David Pekoske says his agency plans to field 40 new advanced checkpoint screening systems for aviation security this year for further operational testing in advanced of a larger rollout in fiscal year 2019.

TSA will field “almost” 40 computed tomography (CT)-based systems to screen carry-on bags, 28 of which will go to airports in the U.S. and the rest to three different government test facilities, Pekoske tells the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Transportation. “We are moving very rapidly to deploy CT X-Ray technology at the checkpoint. This is my top priority.”

A five-year technology investment plan that TSA delivered to Congress in late December showed plans to buy only two CT systems each year between fiscal years 2018 and 2020. Pekoske says the reason for the disparity between the earlier plan and his new plans is that the investment strategy preceded the actual budget.

A TSA spokesman tells HSR that of the 40 systems the agency is planning to acquire and deploy this year, fund for about half of them will come from previous appropriations. TSA has requested Congress reprogram about $35 million in FY ’18 funds for the other half.

TSA is currently testing at two airport checkpoints CT systems supplied by Integrated Defense & Security Solutions and L3 Technologies [LLL]. The agency is expected to begin testing a system supplied by Analogic [ALOG] early this year at another airport screening lane. Smiths Detection is also developing CT system for checkpoint applications.

The CT systems that TSA will deploy this year will be for developmental and operational testing, Pekoske says.

“We are planning a much larger deployment in fiscal year ’19. Details of this will be provided in the president’s budget when it is released in a few weeks,” Pekoske says. Fiscal year 2019 will include the “first large tranche” of funding for the systems, he adds.

Pekoske won’t offer any details about his agency’s pending fiscal year 2019 budget request, which will go to Congress in early February, but says that the budget environment is “resource constrained.”

Last November, when Pekoske appeared before the full committee, he said wider deployments of the CT systems would wait until after the algorithms being developed for the systems meet a new detection standard, called the Accessible Property Screening Standard (APSS). He tells the subcommittee this month that TSA is ready to move forward with CT deployments before their detection algorithms are mature enough to meet the APSS standard, which covers a broader array of threats than the current standard.

This is good news for suppliers of CT systems who are concerned the procurement process will be dragged out while they work under contracts with agency to develop detection algorithms to meet the APSS standard. Work on the algorithms is expected to be finished this fall.

Ultimately, how many CT systems will be needed isn’t known, Pekoske says. There are about 2,400 Advanced Technology (AT) X-Ray systems currently deployed to screen checked bags and he said a straight up replacement would mean as many CT systems. TSA has said it expects to retain some AT systems.

The CT systems provide an operator with a 3D image of a bag’s contents, versus a 2D image generated by the AT systems, providing a more granular view of potential threats. The new systems also have the potential to automatically detect the presence of explosives inside bags, which could eventually lead to automated alerts for bags with threats in them and more rapid processing of bags overall, leading to higher throughput at the checkpoint.

Pekoske also tells the panel that in the area of technology investment at the checkpoint, which he believes will “yield the greatest impact on mitigating threats to aviation,” he is “developing a TSA Strategy and Administrator’s Intent and a capital investment plan.  These will guide TSA’s implementation of future technology development as part of a larger systems approach.”

Pekoske also says that testing of Credential Authentication Technology (CAT) is ongoing at 10 airports. He says 33 CAT systems are being evaluated at the head of PreCheck screening lanes.

The CAT systems are used to scan a traveler’s government-issued identity document and provide real-time verification of ticketing status, real-time verification of Secure Flight vetting status, and real-time vetting at the checkpoint, Pekoske says. He adds that the technology, which is about six years past the original expected deployment time, will reduce vulnerabilities related to fraudulent ID documents.