The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is in the final phases of operational testing of next-generation parcel scanners for use at airport security checkpoints with the program on track and producing good results, David Pekoske, the agency’s chief, said on Wednesday.

“I am very pleased so far with the results” of the ongoing operational testing and evaluation of the computed tomography (CT) machines at checkpoints, Pekoske told the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee during his opening remarks for an oversight hearing of the TSA. Later in the hearing, Pekoske said that in the first quarter of 2019, TSA expects to award the first contract for 200 CT systems to deploy at checkpoints in place of the existing Advanced Technology (AT) X-ray systems used to screen carry-on bags.

Computed tomography carry-on baggage scanner supplied by Smiths Detection being tested at Los Angeles International Airport. Photo: TSA
Computed tomography carry-on baggage scanner supplied by Smiths Detection being tested at Los Angeles International Airport. Photo: TSA

Currently, 13 airports have the CT systems for the operational testing, Pekoske said, adding, “I have watched them in operation. They are a significant enhancement in security effectiveness and I’ve also watched passengers actively self-align behind CT machines because it’s a better passenger experience. Passengers are not required to take as many things out of their carry-on bags.”

The CT systems provide operators with a 3-dimensional image that can also be rotated on a display screen for better clarity of a bag’s contents. The systems also allow the operator to virtually remove a suspect item for closer examination. The systems also offer automated threat recognition, providing an alarm for an operator to take a closer look at an item. The AT X-ray systems provide 2-D images for operators.

In some airports, as part of the operational testing, local Federal Security Directors are allowing travelers that go through a security lane equipped with a CT system to leave their laptops and personal electronics in their bags. The CT systems also allow for the use of larger bins, which means fewer bins are needed, making it even more convenient for travelers.

Ultimately, the hope is that the CT systems can automatically detect potential threats in liquids and electronic devices, which would mean these items wouldn’t need to be divested and throughput rates would increase.

TSA has development and test contracts with five vendors for the next-generation scanners. Analogic, Integrated Defense & Security Solutions, L3 Technologies [LLL], and Britain’s Smiths Detection each have multiple systems that are part of the operational testing phase. ScanTech is developing a hybrid AT/CT system that is also part of the process but isn’t in operational testing.

TSA has said it expects to have 15 airports involved in the operational testing of CT systems and a total of 40 deployed by the end of this year. Another 145 are expected to be deployed by the end of fiscal year 2019.

Pekoske also provided an update on the Credential Authentication Technology (CAT) system that TSA has been testing at a number of airports to automatically validate traveler credentials as individuals approach the security checkpoint. The CAT systems also automatically query TSA’s Secure Flight database to check for any concerns related to the traveler presenting his or her travel document.

TSA is testing 42 CAT systems at 13 airports and in January 2019 plans to award a contract for another 300 systems, Pekoske said, noting the devices cost about $15,000 apiece. A U.S.-based unit of France-based Idemia is the prime contractor for CAT.

Pekoske said that with CAT travelers won’t need to present a boarding pass to a TSA officer.

CAT has “been very, very successful,” Pekoske said. The devices provide benefits in terms of security and convenience, he said.