In 2007, the first SmartGate was installed in Brisbane Airport, allowing Australian and New Zealand e-passport holders on all incoming international flights to quickly and securely complete the immigration process without making contact with a single border inspector.

Fast forward six years and the technology, which uses state-of-the-art biometric facial recognition to allow travellers to bypass manual passport control, is used in all of Australia’s main international airports, including Sydney, Melbourne and Perth, and three of New Zealand’s – and its adoption is set to become more widespread.

Over the next two years, thanks to $7.9 million of government funding, at least 20 more SmartGates will be installed at Australian international airports as more and more travellers become eligible to self-process through immigration.

So why was the decision taken to invest in this technology in the first place, when trials began in 2002? According to Robyn Miller, national manager of passenger policy and practice at the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service, it was really the only way to maintain the existing standards of border protection at Australian international airports with increasing numbers of travellers predicted to enter the country.

"Traveller numbers into Australia were projected to grow very strongly, and the space available for border agencies in airports could not grow at the same rate," she explains. "We needed to find ways in which we could process these increasing traveller numbers efficiently and securely, particularly during peak periods."

"The SmartGate technology allows eligible travellers to bypass passport processing queues and self-process using their e-Passport," Miller says. "This may be much quicker than waiting to see a customs and border protection officer, especially during busy periods such as school holidays."

The entire process takes only 90 seconds. Microchipped e-Passports are read and a SmartGate ticket is issued by a kiosk, before a camera checks the passenger’s face against their passport photo at the gate. Passengers can then proceed to the baggage hall and hand in their SmartGate ticket and incoming passenger card on exit.

"Facial-recognition technology works by mapping the underlying bone structure of the face," Miller says. "With SmartGate, a mathematical formula is used to check that the photo of your face matches your e-Passport photo. Customs and border protection uses facial recognition technology because it is less intrusive than other biometric measures, easy to use and more broadly applicable to the general population."

A proven solution

So far, over seven million travellers have successfully used SmartGate since its introduction in 2007 and the feedback from Australian international airports has been largely positive. At Sydney Airport, for example, where SmartGates were introduced in mid-2009 after a three-year trial at Sydney and Melbourne Airports, the management has no regrets.

"SmartGates have been a great success, with excellent feedback from passengers," confirms Kerrie Mather, CEO and MD of Sydney Airport. "Our passengers find SmartGate much easier and faster as it significantly reduces the time it takes to go through customs. Sydney Airport strongly supports the use of SmartGates and other next generation technology to deliver a better experience for our passengers."

"Customs and border protection uses facial recognition technology because it is less itnrusive than other biometric measures."

Mather is now collaborating with customs to significantly expand the use of SmartGates in Sydney Airport.

"Working with customs, we are installing more SmartGates in both piers of Terminal 1 to improve passenger facilitation and processing times," she notes. "In 2012, we worked with customs to redesign the SmartGate area in Pier C and increased the number of gates from five to nine. We are currently working to expand SmartGates in Pier B, increasing the number of gates from six to 13."

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Not only is the number of people arriving and departing from Australia’s international airports set to steadily increase over the next few years – current forecasts by Tourism Research Australia show that between 2012 and 2020, international traveller numbers are expected to grow at an average annual rate of 3.6% – more and more of these travellers will soon become eligible to self-process.

"The additional SmartGate capacity is required to cater for the increasing number of travellers who are eligible to use SmartGate," Miller confirms. "In January 2012, the age limit for SmartGate was lowered from 18 to 16 to allow more young people to use it. Additionally, the roll-out of e-Passports [a requirement to be able to use SmartGate] to Australian and New Zealand citizens will be complete by the end of 2015."

Moreover, passengers are becoming increasingly familiar with using self-service technologies.

"In the last year, the use of SmartGate by eligible Australian and New Zealand travellers has increased significantly, with more than 65% choosing to use SmartGate in March 2013," Miller says. "That figure is expected to rise to 80% next financial year."

Equipment, maintenance and operational challenges

Of course, with such rapid growth comes challenges, and Miller admits that it hasn’t been easy finding the correct balance between SmartGate and manual processing.

"One of the key challenges has been in ensuring that there is enough SmartGate equipment available so that anyone who is eligible to use SmartGate can use it with minimal queues, while at the same time ensuring that we have enough customs and border protection officers available to assist those travellers that aren’t eligible for SmartGate or can’t use it," she says.

"The eligibility age for SmartGate is currently 16, and that means that some families who would like to use it, especially during busy periods like school holidays, can’t. We are currently looking at ways in which we can allow more families to use SmartGate instead of having to queue to see a customs and border protection officer."

Maintenance of the system is also something that requires constant attention from personnel.

"Like all technology, sometimes the systems don’t work as well as they should," Miller acknowledges. "So we have also invested a lot of effort in ensuring the system is maintained to a high standard and that it is upgraded so that it continues to work well as many more travellers use it."

"With such rapid growth comes challenges it hasn’t been easy finding the correct balance between SmartGate and manual processing."

"Working closely with airports and immigration has also been essential to meet the challenges of switching so quickly from manual to automatic processing, Miller emphasises.

"Customs and border protection works closely with the Department of Immigration and Citizenship to regularly review the way that SmartGate works, and to ensure that it continues to protect Australia’s border," she says, adding that, while SmartGate performs a range of immigration and security checks, it can’t completely replace a human inspector.

"If any of those checks can’t be completed successfully, the traveller is referred to a customs and border protection officer for clearance," she says.

A truly global system

The SmartGate system is already being trialled to include US Global Entry Program members. The trial began in November and the results will help customs determine the best way of extending SmartGate to passengers of other nationalities with e-Passports, potentially making it a global system.

"Like all trials, there have been a few issues arise that we need to do some more work on before we would open SmartGate up to all eligible US e-Passport holders," Miller says. "That work is underway now and the trial has been extended indefinitely."

Despite the challenges, feedback from US Global Entry Program members has generally been positive about the trial, and more similar initiatives will soon be underway. The Australian prime minister recently announced two new trials in the next five years: a two-year feasibility study of a departures automated border control system and a trial beginning in 2015 that will allow eligible Chinese e-Passport holders to use SmartGate.