By Calvin Biesecker

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) this week awarded Rapiscan Security Systems a $25.4 million contract using Recovery Act funding for whole body imaging systems that will be deployed at some of the nation’s airports, marking the first production award to any company for the imaging systems.

Rapiscan’s Secure 1000 system is based on X-Ray technology called backscatter. The image processing software displays organic and inorganic materials. Rapiscan is a division of OSI Systems, Inc. [OSIS].

TSA had begun pilot testing the Secure 1000 system in early August after Rapiscan had made some changes to how the system was used. An earlier version of the Secure 1000 required a passenger to offer two poses to obtain front and back views to meet TSA requirements. Upgrades to the system by Rapiscan that were completed earlier this year allow for a single pose to capture all the necessary angles on a person, which speeds throughput.

A notice of the award appears in the Sept. 28 FedBizOpps. The contract covers more than 150 systems. The Secure 1000 is the first Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) included on a Qualified Products List (QPL). AIT is TSA’s new moniker for Whole Body Imaging systems.

In July, TSA issued a Request for Proposals seeking sources for personnel imagers that would lead to the establishment of a QPL.

TSA said it had no comment on the award to Rapiscan pending congressional notifications. The award is a surprise considering how recently the agency began the pilot tests of the Secure 1000 at several airports.

A less surprising choice for the first production award would seem to have been L-3 Communications [LLL], which has sold about 40 of its ProVision millimeter wave-based whole body imagers to TSA beginning in the fall of 2007. Those systems have been in pilot testing for nearly two years, first in secondary screening applications and then beginning late last winter, in primary screening.

For TSA to begin using the ProVision machine as a primary screening tool, which involves sending far more passengers through then when it is used in secondary mode, means that TSA was satisfied enough that the system could meet relatively demanding throughput requirements. Passengers do have the option of opting out of using any whole body imagers in favor of going through a traditional metal detector and then being subject to a physical pat down search.

L-3 has made modifications to its ProVision system, which are undergoing pilot tests that began in August at select airports.

Britain’s Smiths Detection, which last month introduced in the United States their entry into the whole body imaging market, may also be pursuing inclusion on the QPL. The company’s eqo system is also based on millimeter wave imaging.

Even before it began pilot testing L-3’s ProVision system, TSA early in 2007 began testing a backscatter-based personnel imager supplied by American Science and Engineering [ASEI]. At the time, TSA was also looking to pilot test Rapiscan’s Secure 1000 but ultimately decided not to. That is until more recently.

AS&E’s SmartCheck system was used in secondary screening for at least a year but it took about 40 seconds to clear an individual, which meant it wasn’t advanced enough for use in primary screening. TSA eventually stopped pilot testing the SmartCheck system and seemed to favor the millimeter wave technology. In August, when AS&E reported its first quarter results, company officials said they haven’t seen any indication from TSA that it was interested in backscatter technology again for whole body imaging but was undecided whether to discontinue SmartCheck.

The use of whole body imaging systems–both millimeter wave and backscatter–have come under fire from privacy advocates and even some members of Congress for the amount of bodily detail they expose. The millimeter wave image looks like a fuzzy photo negative and allows a Transportation Security Officer who is viewing the display to observe potential threats as well as a person’s body parts. The privacy algorithms in use in the backscatter systems turn the image of person into a chalk outline, still giving a screener a view beneath a person’s clothing.

To combat the privacy concerns, TSA makes sure that the officer who views the images put out by the AIT systems be relatively remote from the checkpoint and not be able to see the people as they are screened. Also the images cannot be stored or printed.

Nonetheless, in June, the House approved an authorization bill for TSA that includes a provision prohibiting the use of whole body imagers in primary screening mode. There is no similar legislation in the Senate.

The provision attempting to limit the use of the AIT systems was introduced by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah). A spokesman for Chaffetz said yesterday that the congressman’s main concern is that passengers be able to make an informed decision about deciding to “opt in” favor of the imaging technology, meaning they have a clear understanding of what the image will reveal.