The Transportation Security Administration is in the final stages of testing technology that can detect the presence of explosives on a person at stand-off ranges, David Pekoske, the agency’s chief, told a Senate panel on Tuesday.

Pekoske said the operational testing and evaluation is part of efforts to review technology to help protect travelers using surface transportation.

Gallery Place metro station in Washington, D.C. Photo: DHS Science and Technology Directorate
Gallery Place metro station in Washington, D.C. Photo: DHS Science and Technology Directorate

“TSA works closely with surface transportation owners and operators to introduce new technology and approaches to securing surface transportation through collaborative operational test beds for different modes of transportation such as mass transit, highway motor carrier, pipeline and freight rail,” Pekoske told the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Surface Transportation in his written remarks. “For example,” he added, “TSA is presently working with New Jersey Transit, Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority, Amtrak, and Los Angeles Metro to assess the effectiveness of technologies designed to address threats associated with person and vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices.”

Soft targets where large numbers of people may be present, such as transit stations and airport terminals, are a concern given successful attacks carried out worldwide by terrorists in these areas.

TSA is piloting and testing terahertz and millimeter wave based systems provided by two British-based companies, Thruvision and Qinetiq. An agency spokesman told Defense Daily that the systems in testing are expected to be ready for purchase by transportation venues within a few months.

The Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology (S&T) Directorate is also doing its own testing of stand-off detection technologies for explosives. The directorate, in partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Laboratory, last October conducted a developmental test and evaluation of a prototype millimeter wave imager that safely scanned crowds for potential threat items.

The testing S&T did was done over three days at the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority’s emergency training center in Boston.

“Successful testing in a representative environment was a key milestone for the effort,” William Moulder, program lead at Lincoln Laboratory, said in a statement on Jan. 17.

The imaging system consists of a set of antennas installed on flat panels and screens commuters at a distance, providing high resolution images in real-time without impacting travelers. The system provides an alarm if someone is concealing potential threat items while maintaining privacy through automated anomaly detection.

The flat panel design of the technology allows for the imager to be scaled to different sizes for integration in walls, ceilings, columns, fare gates and entryways.

S&T is planning another round of testing of the millimeter wave technology in combination with other security technologies at another location. The technology that S&T is testing is at lower technology readiness levels than what TSA is examining.