In November 2020, Micro-X announced it had been selected for funding by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for a project to develop a passenger self-service security screening portal. PTW speaks to Brian Gonzales, chief scientist at Micro-X, about the project and how the technology aims to transform the way passengers are screened.
Please tell us more about the DHS project.
Earlier this year, the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate (DHS S&T) put out a broad agency announcement – or solicitation – for proposals for design input and prototypes for a passenger self-screening concept. The solicitation was a white paper – you proposed a 10-page ‘pre-proposal’ and from that you were then invited to submit a full proposal. There were a large number of white papers but only a few selected for full proposal, of which Micro-X was one. The full proposals were then reviewed and following a successful review we received feedback that our proposal was selected for funding.
We don’t have a contract with DHS yet, but we received notification that our solution is selected for funding subject to successful contracting negotiations. Typically, a company would not put it in the public domain at this stage, but we felt that we needed to because Micro-X is a publicly listed company in Australia and we felt that if word got out that this was underway, it could have a substantial impact on our stock price and could be perceived as insider trading.
Moving forward there will be a negotiation and contract phase with DHS where they go through all of their processes and then if successful, we will be awarded the contract based on the full proposal statement of work. We are optimistic and hopeful that we can be starting the project by the end of Q1 2021, but government contracting is complex and can take time. We’re eager to get started as soon as possible on the program.
Who are you working with on the project?
We are working with four partners to deliver on the contract. We have been selected for two separate proposals – the first is to design and deliver a miniaturized baggage screening CT system that can fit into the self-screening portal, and that we’re taking on by ourselves because we have the technology to deliver the small form factor and the imaging capability.
The second proposal is a concept development for how the entire portal will work. That is a larger system and we’re the prime technology provider on that but we’re leading a team of four other companies – two I can mention but two are confidential. One is providing the millimeter wave for on-person screening and the other is providing the software integration to bring together the information from all the different sensors to a single decision about the passenger. So rather than having your bag alarm or the on-person alarm or your ticket say something about you, all of that information is synthesized into one decision – is the passenger safe or not – based on all of this data.
We are working with Elenium Automation, an Australian company that designs airport automation – they designed Qantas’s new terminal in Australia where there’s a whole bunch of automation for domestic passenger check-in. They also have a flagship in Hong Kong International Airport. They have touchless passenger verification technology using facial recognition and visual and vocal cues. They also have some technology that can look at passenger vital signs which is interesting in the current Covid-19 era – as they’re reading your face, they can take your temperature and look at your heart rate.
We’re also working with Monash University in Australia – they are some of the world leaders in industrial design for human factors. Some of their team worked with Boeing and they have a lot of experience in making tight, compact spaces feel open. What we identified going into this project is that the biggest risk to this self-screening portal taking off is if passengers don’t like it; if they feel claustrophobic or confined. That has to be balanced against all of the government regulations and TSA rules. We’re working with Monash to model out the human factors to do in-depth interviews with people and concept development and mock-ups to really drive out how we can make this work from a human passenger experience and an operator review experience – how those two humans work together to get passengers through this seamlessly and efficiently.
We need to look at how we balance screening the passenger – the millimeter wave technology can work in real time and capture data as people are moving, and we have a very small form factor baggage screener, so we can bring the size of the portal down. Our initial thinking when we first started talking to TSA was on more of an open pathway – like automated passport control gates – but the concern there was the role of on-person screener, so the key challenge is how we balance our idea with what the TSA wants and needs. The whole process should take about two years – the prototype, the baggage screener and the first concept are due in the first year after the contract is awarded, and the second year is about more detailed design and integration so that by the end of the second year everyone feels very confident that yes, we need to go in this direction. It gives us an opportunity to convince everyone that we can deliver on it and make it work. We feel very excited and confident that we can do that.
How does the technology work?
The two challenges of the current security checkpoint are bottlenecks and the number of operators needed at the checkpoint. There are six individual bottlenecks where a very efficient passenger who is well experienced flies through the checkpoint if no one is in front of them and you would achieve the theoretical maximum throughput. In reality, all it takes is one person traveling with children or one new passenger who isn’t familiar with the process, to be in front of you and suddenly the whole system starts bottling up. Whether its divesting their equipment or an alarm going off because they didn’t remove things from pockets or an alarm on their bag because they brought a water bottle or something, or taking a long time to collect their items, there are just a lot of bottlenecks, and that’s if there is no security threat.
Clearly you could reduce security to reduce the bottlenecks, but everyone wants to increase security because we want to be safe. And bringing CT into these x-rays doesn’t really change those bottlenecks. There are between nine and 11 operators required to keep the current system flowing. If you reduce the number of operators you slow everything down, if you increase the number you would speed everything up, but people are expensive. Especially for the TSA, which has to fund 440+ airports in the USA.
Our proposal looks like an individual portal where the passenger approaches the portal, enters it with their baggage and scans their boarding document. The passenger then gets verified; working with Elenium that would be verification via facial recognition but it could also be verification via credit card or some other form of verification. While they are getting verified and while they are divesting their bags into this small bag screener, the on-person screener is scanning them. A big part of this is, if something alarms whether on their person or in their bag, if it is a low-level alarm the system responds to them and tells them to check their pocket or bag. It then rescans them once they have divested the item. It empowers the passenger to take responsibility for their own screening. If there’s a higher-level alarm, the system will call in an officer.
All of the bottlenecks will be brought to one portal, and we envisage between six and eight of these portals will replace the standard lane. So now when you walk into the checkpoint, if the person in front is struggling to get through the portal, you can just go to the next one so there are fewer bottlenecks. And because everything is automated you are reducing the number of operators by at least a factor of two. This aligns well with what TSA’s concepts are. We recognize this only works if the process is intuitive to the passenger and non-threatening to them. They have to take ownership of what is going on and how they can move themselves through the security process.
Our unique x-ray technology enables us to bring the size of an x-ray down without losing performance. That allows us to build a very small CT – we can deliver full high-resolution dual-energy CT images of the bag in a very small cabinet size. The TSA got excited because they had the idea of passenger self-screening focused on how we screen passengers, but conventional x-ray technology was too large to fit into the concept. The CT scanner uses a string of very small x-ray tubes, like a string of Christmas lights, and they turn on and off in sequence to generate CT.
Do you envisage the security checkpoint of the future being only self-service?
I see a future where it is all portals, but I recognize that there may always need to be one standard lane for someone who doesn’t want to use a portal. I see a future where most people want to use the portal rather than having someone pat them down and having to engage with people. A big concern people have is their bag – they want to know no one else has touched their property and that they’re in control of that. We have spent a lot of time in our proposal and in our initial thinking considering children and families, special needs passengers, the elderly, etc, and how we could accommodate those, and we have some ideas about perhaps building wider portals to accommodate those different groups.
What are the challenges of this new technology?
The intrinsic challenge with any detection problem is the more specific you want it, the more chance you have of a random misclassification that isn’t important. If you had perfect detection of threats, you would have a high false alarm rate – i.e., ‘this is a threat but it’s not really a threat’. In a conventional system the false alarms cause bottlenecks because they have to be resolved. One of the nice things about the self-screening model is that most of the alarms can be resolved by the passenger so you can sustain a higher detection rate because you’re asking the passenger to resolve most of the alarms themselves. If something is very obviously dangerous, the system is going to find that anyway. It’s the questionably dangerous things that cause false alarms so being able to say the passenger can deal with that will reduce bottlenecks. If the passenger can’t deal with it then it is clearly something you want to bring an officer in to.
One of the reasons this has so much potential is that from a passenger perspective, it offers a real positive change. From a detection point of view, it will significantly improve the level of security we can provide for the traveler.
What are your predictions for the future of air travel and passenger processing?
I see a future in aviation where for an experienced traveler, they don’t ever engage with another person in an official manner – they check themselves and their baggage, they go through the automated self-screening portal and they can even board the plane automatically so all of the bottlenecks and challenges will become simpler and more automated.
In our hopefully post-Covid-19 world, there will be a greater awareness of how disease is spread. Covid spread so fast globally because we are a connected world and we’re not going to want to be disconnected so we’re finding ways of maintaining the important connections and growing them while removing the unnecessary interactions that expose us.
This technology doesn’t remove security officers, it just changes their role to be more intelligent, to be assessing threats and passenger behaviors as they move through the airport, and that is a higher value job. And it also protects them as they’re not having to touch bags and passengers unnecessarily.