Each passing year sees development in the manifestations of terrorism. Attacks are more individualistic, more opportunistic and make use of more technologies. What is constant, however, is that the airport environment presents a significant target.

“Security solutions were not keeping pace with the evolving threats,” says Steve Karoly, until recently the acting assistant administrator for the TSA’s Office of Requirements and Capabilities Analysis (ORCA). He is clear that a reimagined airport is required – one with the creativity and flexibility to stay ahead of the security threats it faces and deal with more passengers than ever before. The key is technological innovation: ensuring the industry has the most sophisticated resources possible.

“It really has to do with providing the best tools for our operators,” Karoly says. This does not simply mean individual pieces of up-to-the-minute tech, but a system that combines technologies and stakeholders together, and is fully integrated and ready to incorporate future innovation.

As head of ORCA, Karoly led the office responsible for identifying gaps in TSA’s capabilities and identifying the procedures, training, resources and technology needed to close these gaps. The office also functions as the TSA’s centre of innovation in security, identifying and developing new technologies in partnership with other TSA and DHS offices, state and local governments, academic researchers and international counter-terrorism communities.

A key component of this is the Innovation Task Force (ITF), which partners with vendors to speed up the process of bringing new technologies to airports through careful selection, development and piloting of programmes. At least once a year, the TSA issues a broad agency announcement inviting input from industry; they assess the technologies and process solutions put forward and whittle them down to the handful that are taken forward.

“The ITF has been doing a great job working with transportation security stakeholders to identify innovative solutions for demonstrating, piloting and assessing those solutions in an operational environment, and providing feedback to the operational user and the technology developer,” Karoly says. Over the past two years, the technologies under scrutiny have addressed areas such as queuing and passenger flow operations, checkpoint screening capabilities for hand baggage, on-person screening, automation and biometrics.

The future checkpoint

The continuing development of new technologies and processes presents a vision of the “checkpoint of the future”. Karoly describes a system that could segment security screening into three types of lanes. One would be equipped with the highest deployment of technologies (the “latest and greatest”, as Karoly says) to assess passengers either unknown or potentially presenting some risk. A second would allow security assessment on the move, with passengers walking through a tunnel equipped with sensors to check them and their belongings. “The level of screening would not be as intense as the screening in the first area of the checkpoint, because these passengers would be somewhat known to the TSA through a detailed vetting system,” Karoly says. Finally, a third set of lanes would offer an even faster process, similar to current Known Crewmember lanes, for passengers who had opted into an enhanced vetting programme.

A number of solutions currently being piloted or deployed by the TSA are central to the realisation of this future checkpoint. One is biometrics, which Karoly describes as “a gamechanger”; the use of facial recognition or fingerprinting to create a token that can be used to identify the passenger throughout the airport and act as their boarding pass. Biometrics allow transparency between differing airport stakeholders by creating an incontrovertible and transferable passenger identity. Before a passenger can enter into one of the three screening lanes described, each person’s identity must be established. “Not just verifying the person’s identification document – a licence or passport – but actually verifying the person’s identity,” Karoly says.

A second innovation is computed tomography (CT), which uses 3D imaging to check the contents of baggage without the need to remove items such as electronics or liquids. CT can digitally unpack the contents of baggage, allowing the detection of items that might not be visible on an X-ray. While CT is a staple part of screening hold baggage, recent advancements have made the technology small enough to introduce into security checkpoints. It has been seized upon by US lawmakers as a counter to aviation security threats; in November 2017, Representative Bennie Thompson, ranking member of the Committee on Homeland Security, pressed the TSA to roll out the technology across the country. “The TSA is working very hard with some industry partners and with the airlines to certify and, basically, accept the use of those systems at airports,” Karoly says, going on to predict that deployment of checkpoint CT scanners will begin towards the end of 2019.

In addition, automated screening lanes are designed to speed up the security process by mechanising previously manual steps. This includes the use of conveyor belts that return bins after screening, and the implementation of a system that allows a number of passengers to place their belongings in bins and proceed through the checkpoint simultaneously. Following their trial at Atlanta- Hartsfield Jackson Airport, automated screening lanes are already present at 12 US airports. The TSA began assessing biometrics at a few airports in 2017 and has been extending the pilot, using additional biometric technologies at other airports. In 2017, TSA also began assessing checkpoint CT scanners in Phoenix and Boston.

Putting passengers first

It is also vital to recognise the place of the passenger and how different demographics may affect the security process. “When you have business travellers who travel all the time, they know exactly what to do with their bags,” Karoly says. On the other hand, infrequent travellers may be less assured when they come to pass through security, slowing down throughput, which can have an effect on safety by crowding the checkpoint environment. “You don’t necessarily want to have a soft target,” Karoly says. “You want to be able to get people though if you have a checkpoint set up.”

Some of the technologies under consideration, therefore, specifically focus on communicating with passengers and ensuring they understand the security process. Karoly explains that the TSA piloted the use of an avatar, an image of a person that presents information. “One of the drivers within ITF was, ‘how do we communicate what we’re doing to passengers?’”, he says. Informed – and therefore more relaxed – passengers contribute to the smooth running of airport security. “Threats will stand out more prevalently in an environment where passengers are less stressed and having a favourable customer experience.”

The TSA also takes seriously the engaging of passengers as stakeholders outside the airport, communicating updates on trials of innovative technologies across a number of channels. Interviews with news media and blogs help spread knowledge of the pilots; before the trial of biometrics in Atlanta and Denver, a TSA blog outlined the purpose of the initiative. Armed with this information, people were able to opt in and use the technology if they saw fit.

The TSA also has an established and growing social media presence, hosting Facebook Live ‘Ask Me Anything’ broadcasts and garnering Webby nominations for its Instagram page. All of this contributes to passenger experience at the airport – part of the ‘three-legged stool’ of airport operations, which also encompasses security effectiveness and operational efficiency.

Working hand in hand

While parts of the “checkpoint of the future” already exist, its realisation requires bringing numerous different technologies and stakeholders together into an integrated whole. “Recently, TSA stated that they are moving away from procuring individual components and are focusing on an integrated system to address their needs,” Karoly says. He estimates it would take five or more years to bring this holistic “system of systems” aviation security capability to fruition. The factors influencing this are varied and include privacy concerns and technology maturation, but a pivotal element is the establishment of an architecture for the sharing of data and intelligence between numerous stakeholders.

Karoly is adamant the future of aviation security lies in the establishment of this cooperation across the airport environment. This means that systems engineering currently being undertaken need to build the future into the present, taking significant steps in the next few years – beyond just the incorporation of new technologies – into account.“ You have to do the upfront systems engineering work now to realize a change in capability in the future,” Karoly says. Future operational needs, such as agility in response to threats and scalability in the face of rising passenger numbers, can be designed into the system. “But it does force us to redesign the aviation security ecosystem,” Karoly adds.

This vision of cooperation will enable the creation of a “curb to gate” security process. “All this really means is that it’s not just about security at a checkpoint,” Karoly says. “It’s about an integrated and distributed security system of systems across the entire airport environment. It starts long before a passenger arrives at an airport and ends when the passenger reaches their destination.”

Achieving this, however, will mean moving beyond the traditional “silo mentality” of aviation stakeholders to a future where information and systems are shared. “They have got to all work together with a common goal in mind,” Karoly emphasises. “That’s the only way to really change this future-aviation security ecosystem.”