TSA tests Auto-EDS at BWI

Published 29 October 2007

Last week TSA sent randomly selected passengers at BWI to be screened by a new screening device from a Massachusetts company; the devices use computed axial tomography (CAT), similar to medical scanners

Dozens of randomly selected Southwest Airlines passengers were sent last Wednesday through a checkpoint at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport which had a new automatic explosives-detection system (EDS) being tested by the federal Transportation Security Administration (TSA). The new imaging technology is the most recent in a series of experimental devices rolled out in the six years since the 9/11 attacks. Several devices have gotten early live tests at BWI, partly because of its proximity to Washington. TSA officials say the Auto-EDS system, which is also being tested at airports in Cleveland and Manchester, New Hampshire, could eventually replace the current X-ray technology at all airport security checkpoints. New technology or not, TSA is coming under increasing criticism for being unable — by either man or machine — to guard against potential threats. The Baltimore Sun’s Laura McCandlish writes that according to a classified government report that leaked last week, screeners at two of the country’s busiest airports failed to detect simulated explosive materials hidden in the carry-on bags or clothing of undercover agents. In testimony before Congress last week, Cathleen Berrick of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said that the “TSA has not yet deployed checkpoint technologies to address key existing vulnerabilities.”

The TSA is spending more than $13 million on Auto-EDS. Peabody, Massachusetts-based Analogic Corp.. received a $7.6 million contract for the twelve explosives-detection scanners that TSA initially purchased, while Bedford, Massachuestts-based Reveal Imaging Technologies received $5.6 million for eight similar systems, first being tested in Manchester. Analogic’s system will roll out at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport in November and then in Miami. Each machine, which is longer than a standard scanner but still fits into a checkpoint lane, sells for about $350,000. Analogic’s devices use computed axial tomography (CAT), similar to medical scanners, which Analogic also produces. The device displays objects in three dimensions, compared to the two-dimension technology of X-ray scanners. The technology is supposed to enhance safety and also move people through security quickly by eliminating the scramble to remove sensitive items before putting bags on conveyor belts. The scanner revolves around the objects on the belt, producing hundreds of images from all angles that are then reconstructed on a computer screen. Any scanned potential explosive or weapon shows up with a red box around it on the computer screen. The corresponding sections of such “hot” bags are then searched. The Analogic system also includes a lower conveyor belt to ship the plastic checkpoint bins back to the passengers waiting to move through the scanner. The technology, though, cannot detect an explosive liquid.

The Auto-EDS pilot comes more than two years after an explosives-detection “puffer” was placed at BWI. Those screening devices were expected to change the face of airport security, but only one remains in use at BWI, for secondary screening of passengers in a terminal that serves Continental Airlines, TSA spokeswoman Amy Kudwa said. About ninety-five puffers, which use quick blasts of air to test for traces of explosive substances, are in use at the nation’s airports, Kudwa said. “We’ve got a lot of different technologies piloting,” she said. “Any one layer alone can be gamed in some way.” Using a combination of pre-9/11 and newer equipment, the TSA now screens all checked luggage for metal and explosives that give off vapors or smells. Other screening devices have been introduced only selectively because of their cost and technological glitches; the puffers, for example, can become contaminated by particles and dust. TSA has yet to showcase technology to detect liquid explosives, which are enclosed in containers that give off no vapors or smells and often are made up of substances that by themselves are harmless.