Is that a gun or just a security test?

Is that a gun or just a security test?

By Tony Lee Orrd

GCN Staff

Security teams at airport checkpoints will soon be subjected to a computer's vivid imagination.


FAA is exposing airport baggage screeners to fake images of security threats. At left, the TIP system inserts an image of a gun; at right, it superimposes a ghost image of an explosive near the suitcase's top edge.


The Threat Image Projection (TIP) system, part of the Federal Aviation Administration's new airport baggage scanning technology, randomly displays fictional images of items such as guns to make security workers more adept at detecting threats, FAA officials said.

Previous technology only used X-ray systems to scan carry-on baggage and other items as travelers and their companions moved through checkpoints into secure areas. TIP will add a training function that FAA officials hope will increase screeners' diligence by inserting fictional threats throughout the duty cycle and keeping a record of responses.

When screeners spot dangerous items, such as guns or knives, in the X-ray images, they must punch a button and TIP reveals whether the image is fictional. If the training application did not create the image, the security team treats the finding as a real threat.

Travelers won't notice much difference between the new systems and the X-ray systems they've become accustomed to pushing their bags through. A conveyer belt moves the bags through the same metal scanning device that captures X-ray images and displays them on a monitor just as it always has.

The X-ray machine captures a series of X-ray images that an on-board analog converter changes to digital data for display, said Michael Ellenbogen, vice president of new business development at PerkinElmer Inc. of Boston, one of the three companies that FAA has approved to provide TIP equipment.

As the images appear on-screen, the custom TIP software randomly inserts ghost images based on the number of bags going through the machine to test the screener's reaction and awareness.

Sweeping rollout

FAA plans to deploy 1,200 of the new systems at 454 airports nationwide by the end of 2002.

The agency, which last month began rolling out the new system at large airports, will pay for the equipment and installation, said Jan Brecht-Clark, FAA's director of security, policy and planning.

Each airport will pick a TIP setup from one of the three vendors and pay for maintenance and upkeep. FAA will pick up the cost of repairs made under warranty.

By the end of next year, FAA expects to install 800 units at a price of $40,000 to $50,000 per unit, Brecht-Clark said. The cost for upgrading all airport security scanning systems could run as high as $80 million, she said. Each unit includes a package of X-ray machines, viewer terminals and TIP software.

A small airport might need only one unit; a large airport such as JFK International in New York might install as many as 40.

Besides PerkinElmer, FAA has approved Rapiscan Computer Products Inc. of Hawthorne, Calif., and Heimann Systems Corp., a German company with American offices in Pine Brook, N.J., to provide TIP systems.

For the initial test of TIP, FAA last summer signed agreements to lease 10 units from each vendor.

It recently bought those systems. The Heimann contract was for $76,550, PerkinElmer's $47,750 and Rapiscan's $98,330.

PerkinElmer and Rapiscan began developing the TIP library of images under a cooperative R&D agreement with FAA's Human Factors Research Lab in Atlantic City, N.J. The agency issued a list of specifications for the proposed system, said Armen Sahagian, FAA's integrated program manager for checkpoints. Heimann joined the effort later.

Other companies could qualify to supply TIP systems with FAA's approval, Sahagian said.

Much of TIP's design was left to the companies. But to be included on the TIP qualified-vendor list, vendors had to meet a set of minimum requirements:

''The custom TIP software must contain at least 350 X-ray images in specified categories of threats defined by FAA.

''To host the TIP library of images, each system must have at least a 2.1G hard drive that can be expanded.

''The system must allow the addition of new images via scanning, through electronic upload from a Zip drive from Iomega Corp. of Roy, Utah, or via a network link.

''The system must support report generation in a Microsoft Excel or Excel-compatible format.

''Files must be downloadable to floppy disks or Zip cartridges with the capacity to store a month's worth of data.

''Airport users must have read-only access privileges to data, and the units must be password-protected.

All three vendors will supply systems that use Pentium PCs for the screening terminals. PerkinElmer and Rapiscan plan to use off-the-shelf PCs from a variety of makers.

The PerkinElmer systems will run TIP under Microsoft Windows 95, Rapiscan under Windows NT.

Heimann will supply 600-MHz Pentium III PCs designed in its German laboratory running Linux to host TIP, said Mark Loustra, the company's managing director of aviation.

Ghostly luggage

Besides inserting fake images into X-ray images, the software can also create a ghost image of a bag containing a fictional threat in a cluster of existing bags, officials said.

The system will keep track of each screener's responses to projected images, giving FAA officials information by which to judge the performance of airport security teams.

User responses will be stored and downloaded every three months to a Zip disk. FAA will upload the data to a Microsoft Access 97 database.

Eventually, FAA wants to create a network link between the TIP units at the airports and an agency data center to handle the data transfers.

If a screener fails to identify a projected threat image, the program stops the system's conveyer belt and sends a message to the user. 'You have not identified a fictional threat,' the program notifies the security worker and then directs the user to search the bag.

The threat image library contains nearly 2,400 images of items such as guns, knives and bombs that security teams are trained to watch for, PerkinElmer's Ellenbogen said.

As recently as April, the General Accounting Office slammed FAA for its poor screening performance.

At a March hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee on Aviation, GAO officials noted that delays in FAA's development and deployment of new screening systems had impeded efforts to certify security companies hired to run checkpoints.

The delays stymied efforts to improve employee performance, said Gerald L. Dillingham, associate director for transportation issues in GAO's Resources, Community and Economic Development Division.

FAA had planned to use data from the TIP system to guide it in setting performance standards, Dillingham said. Now the agency will likely be forced to look to other information, he said.

But Lyle Malotky, FAA's chief scientific and technical adviser for civil aviation security, said that although the concept of threat imaging was conceived roughly a decade ago, only recently have PCs had the crunching power to make the system a reality.

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