Transportation securityL-3's millimeter wave scanning technology tested at ten U.S. airports

Published 8 September 2008

Two technologies — backscatter X-rays and millimeter wave — compete in the airport security scanning market; TSA is currently testing millimeter wave at ten airports, and the fact that the technology is faster than its rival may make it the scanning technology of choice

L-3 Communications grew into the nation’s sixth-largest defense company by selling a dizzying array of products that largely flew under the public’s radar. This is not the case with a machine the company makes in St. Petersburg, Florida — one that creates explicit images of traveler’s bodies to find weapons under their clothes. The device is getting a lot of attention, not all of it favorable. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is testing L-3’s millimeter wave’ scanner at ten major U.S. airports and will expand to fourteen more, including Tampa International, by year end. The scanner portal is slightly larger than a telephone booth. Travelers step inside and lift their arms while harmless radio waves from rotating antennas bounce off them. Within seconds, a security agent in a nearby room looks over a dark-but-detailed image of their naked body.

Steve Huettel writes in the Tampa Bay Times that civil liberties groups call the process “an electronic strip search” that violates people’s privacy rights. TSA officials say no one but the agent sees the 3-D scan. Images are deleted seconds after officers determine passengers aren’t carrying anything dangerous.

The agency will buy eighty more body imaging machines next year from L-3, two competitors with different technology or a combination of the three. It is part of a wider effort by the TSA to upgrade airport checkpoints with hardware better suited to finding explosives a suicide bomber could try to smuggle onto an airliner. “The threats have changed,” said L-3 CEO Michael Strianese in a conference call with analysts in July. “We have gone from metallic to liquid, and the capability of the current technology offers better detection capability than the carry-on scanners and X-ray machines sitting there today.”

In addition to ProVision, the company hopes to sell TSA a dual-view’ X-ray which lets officers see objects inside carry-on bags from different angles. The agency also is testing a shoe-scanning machine from L-3 that could allow travelers to walk through checkpoints without removing their shoes.

Security and detection devices accounted for less than 3 percent of the company’s $14 billion in sales last year. Three-quarters of L-3’s business comes from a wide spectrum of U.S. military projects, largely in sophisticated communications and aviation gear. For years, the company, headquartered in New York, has updated Air Force RC-135 spy planes which intercept voice and signal communications and pinpoint the source. L-3 also sells simulators for pilots of unmanned