High-tech security on the ground keeps passengers safe in the air

By Zach Goldberg

When it comes to safe travel, flying is without a doubt the best option. “Air travel is the safest form of mass transportation,” wrote Simon Mosey, professor of entrepreneurship and innovation at the University of Nottingham, UK, in the June 23, 2014, issue of The Washington Post. “We’re far more likely to die on a train or a passenger boat. We’re safer sitting in an airplane than in a car. And plane safety gets better year on year.” That said, we cannot ignore the fact that airline security and the public’s perception of it are paramount to the continued flourishing of commercial aviation. Recognizing this, the airline industry is swiftly adopting a host of cutting-edge safety technologies leveraging physics and digital innovation to stamp out threats from those who would cause harm in the sky.

Indeed, the future of aviation security is unmistakably bright, and we have science on our side. Already, France-based Morpho’s CTX 9800—an automated system that integrates multiple high-definition, 3-D imaging technologies—can scan the gamut of known explosive substances at a clip of 1,000 bags per hour. What is more, Morpho is now developing a groundbreaking x-ray diffracting carry-on luggage screener that, when widely adopted, will make those rankling liquid strictures a thing of the past.

But forthcoming innovations will not just enhance and expedite security, they’ll concurrently cut costs. “Technology enables us to do a lot more with less,” says Cameron Ritchie, vice president of R&D at Morpho. As for threat detection: “No single piece of hardware will ever be the silver bullet,” Ritchie explains. “Rather, the amalgamation of several is the game changer.”

Easier Passenger Entry

Long the hallmark of science fiction, a future in which passengers seamlessly stroll through an integrative scanning corridor “is very possible,” says Ritchie. In fact, the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) Checkpoint of The Future (CTF) concept sets 2020 as its fruition date. While that may be an overly ambitious target, the technological groundwork is already zipping through the pipeline.

And believe it or not, that seamless stroll from check-in to takeoff could come sooner than most

Standoff explosive detection will be central to this transition. And Canada’s Genia Photonics (GP), pioneers of a tunable spectroscopic laser system, is at the forefront of its emergence. Roughly the size of a desktop computer, GP’s device is a sort of “molecular sonar.” It fires variable frequencies of lasers at a target whose molecules—when primed by a matching frequency—absorb the beam and emit a distinct return “signal.” As different explosive molecules have different energy frequencies, a detection system processes their unique resonance signatures to reliably identify them.

In its current form, the device is capable of detection down to a few micrograms of trace explosive on surfaces. And though its effective range is limited to about a meter, Joseph Salhany, GP’s vice president of R&D, contends that subsequent iterations will be faster and more powerful while maintaining safe operation. For would-be bombers, this is very bad news.

Yet for those who hate removing their shoes and being patted down by security officials, this is great news. Such fast and non-invasive body screening technologies mean a smoother and easier time going through airport security and getting to our flights. And believe it or not, that seamless stroll from check-in to takeoff could come sooner than most passengers expect.

Assessing Expressions

If physics is on our side in detecting malevolent weaponry, physiognomy is on our side in detecting intent. Anyone showing up at the airport with bad intentions is unlikely to comport himself like he’s spending the day at the beach. At the minimum, he’ll be furtive and evince some measure of edginess—even if subtle and subconscious. And this is where California-based Eyeris’s micro-expression recognition software, EmoVu, comes in.

Interfaced with a color or 3-D time-of-flight camera overlooking an airport terminal, EmoVu’s self-learning algorithms register even the subtlest facial cues—lasting just 1/20th of a second—that correspond to a suite of universal human emotions: joy, surprise, anger, sadness, fear, disgust, neutral. To put this into perspective, the human eye only recognizes macro-expressions, such as a

smile or grimace, which usually last just 0.5 to 4 seconds. Such performance is largely determined by how many frames per second (fps) a visual device can capture, with the human eye topping out at about 5 fps, and EmoVu processing images at 140 fps. In addition, the human brain needs several seconds to register what the eye is seeing, but EmoVu’s “brain” does so almost instantaneously.

In practice, EmoVu functions like so: 12:05 pm, three people in field of view, 1 male—distressed, 2 females—happy. If programmed accordingly, it can then dispatch a security alert when certain affective criteria are crossed.

Eyeris’s CEO, Modar (JR) Alaoui, claims that his software consistently boasts an astounding 96.8% accuracy on account of its self-correcting and deep-learning artificial intelligence, which makes it more accurate at interpreting facial cues as it collects more data. In other words, the longer the technology operates, the more formidable it becomes.

Although Alaoui meets fairly regularly with whetted government security officials, he says it will be “a matter of years” before EmoVu widely penetrates the security-tech market where the benefits of its technology will outweigh privacy concerns. And during that time, “we’re likely to see even greater advancements in facial analytics.”

Assembling the System

As the aforementioned technologies and others continue to advance, aviation is quickly approaching a bona fide revolution in passenger security and convenience. With screening procedures set to become faster, more potent, less obtrusive and capable of discriminating between harmful and harmless in real time, the era of the ponderous one-size-fits-all security scheme is headed for retirement. In all, the unprecedented efficiency of new technologies promises that passengers will pay less for more peace of mind.

The road ahead involves coalescing all of the new gadgetry and security protocols into one synergetic structure. However long this process takes, it stands to reason that the airport of the future will be a daunting minefield for the bad guys and a cakewalk for everyone else.

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