Micro-X is developing an automated screening process that could save time and minimize stress, but it’s likely to be expensive.
By Jeremy Bogaisky, Forbes Staff
Inan industrial park near Seattle’s airport, an Australian company called Micro-X is developing a system that could make air travelers’ dreams come true: speedy security screening that promises minimal interaction with TSA officers.
Micro-X is using new technology to redesign airport checkpoints to resemble self-checkout lanes at supermarkets. If it works as planned, Micro-X’s process would not only be faster, it would be less stressful for passengers and Transportation Security Administration employees. Yet, in an environment where TSA often seems to be under fire for some shortcoming — poor performance on tests for detecting weapons, making the experience confusing and unpleasant for travelers, and, especially, its expensive bloat — the new equipment may not satisfy critics. It would be pricey.
Micro-X’s target for the cost of the self-screening system is roughly twice that of the newest type of conventional security lanes, according to Brian Gonzales, Micro-X’s chief scientific officer and head of its U.S. operation. This year, the TSA has already committed to pay up to $1.3 billion for about 1,200 CT scanners to screen carry-on bags. As for the Micro-X system, the hope is the cost would end up being “competitive” on a per-passenger basis, according to John Fortune, who oversees the project as manager of a Department of Homeland Security technology-development program called Screening at Speed.
The company’s design “breaks the mold,” Fortune tells Forbes. “It would really shake up the way a checkpoint is built.”
Here’s how it would work. After getting their IDs checked, travelers enter an area with rows of booths, each big enough for two adults. An avatar on a screen tells them to put their belongings in the cabinet of a CT scanner that’s one-quarter the size of anything else on the market. The scanner uses X-rays to create a 3-D image that’s automatically analyzed for prohibited items by software powered by machine-learning algorithms. Meanwhile, a camera system and an electromagnetic body scanner examine the traveler and the avatar prompts them if they’ve forgotten to take something out of their pockets — or seem to be hiding something.
TSA officers would step in only if the system detects a suspicious item or if a traveler needs help.
From 2020 through 2022, DHS committed $4.9 million for Micro-X to develop its concept and deliver initial prototypes. In July, the agency awarded the company a contract extension worth up to $14 million to build six screening booths, with the goal for the first to be delivered for testing within the next 12 to 18 months.
Airport security officials, especially since 9/11, have been navigating a delicate balance, weighing travelers’ convenience with the imperative of keeping them safe. That task only grows harder when more people fly, and more people are flying. Air travel has bounced back from pandemic doldrums, with a record 264 million people passing through airport security checkpoints during the summer travel season — 2 million more than in the same period in 2019. If passenger growth rates return to their pre-pandemic trajectory — about 4% annually — that means bigger challenges, Fortune says. “At some point you’re not going to be able to keep up with both the evolving threats, but also the number of travelers that continue to go through the system,” he says.
Micro-X promises its revamped checkpoints would keep foot traffic moving, with passengers able to complete the screening process in an average time of 60 seconds and in as little as 30 seconds. Its design features eight screening booths in the same space as the current single-line lanes. That way, if a passenger dawdles or sets off alarms, other travelers could still flow through the remaining booths.
DHS’ goal is for the self-service system to be capable of screening 400 passengers per hour per lane, with less than 5% requiring officer intervention. Micro-X thinks it could do better — 500 passengers an hour per lane, Gonzales says. TSA won’t disclose statistics on its current performance, but Gonzales says his understanding is that 500 an hour would be well above the flow of PreCheck lanes, which he says tend to handle 300 an hour at best. A jammed-up standard lane might only process 150 travelers an hour, he says.
The goal is to have seven TSA officers staffing a lane, down from 11 currently, Gonzales says. If the image-analysis algorithms can be made accurate enough, he says it may be possible to reduce that to as few as three officers.
The system would reduce stress for officers. They would spend more time helping passengers rather than conducting often tense pat-downs and bag searches. They could also be freed up to remotely examine images of bags flagged by the detection algorithms.
The process could be particularly helpful at smaller airports with light traffic. A single Micro-X pod could be all the capacity needed.
DHS is also funding a project led by a Dutch company, Vanderlande, to develop a self-screening checkpoint with current technology. It’s added a gating system and automated instructions to its two-lane checkpoint, which uses a conventional CT machine paired with a Rohde & Schwartz body scanner kitted out with a virtual assistant that cues passengers to check their pockets if the scanner picks up anything.
The Vanderlande project is further along than Micro-X’s. DHS tested it this spring and hopes to launch a trial by year-end on the PreCheck lanes at Harry Reid International Airport in Las Vegas. It has some features that could speed up the flow of passengers — there are three stations where travelers line up to put their bags on a conveyor — but it doesn’t have the same potential to accelerate the process as the system Micro-X is developing, Fortune says.
Fortune cautions that there’s much about the new technologies that still needs to be proved out.
Micro-X has already commercialized light, mobile medical X-ray machines based on the same technology in its CT scanner. Standard X-ray machines still work pretty much the same as they did when they were first developed around the turn of the 20th century. A filament heats up in a vacuum tube, similar to an old-fashioned light bulb, generating a stream of electrons that create X-rays when they’re rapidly slowed down by a dense metal. Micro-X has perfected technology first developed by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that applies an electric field to carbon nanotubes to generate a current of electrons. The benefits: its X-ray tubes are about a quarter of the size and a tenth the weight of standard ones. It also provides more precise electronic control of timing and dosing, the company says.
The success of the self-screening security project could mean a big future for a small company. Micro-X had sales of $9.7 million in the fiscal year that ended June 30. With a market capitalization of just $35 million on the Australian Securities Exchange, Gonzales says it will need outside investment or partnerships to get the system to market.
The project also depends on Munich-based Voxel Radar delivering on its claim that its next-generation millimeter wave body scanner is capable of taking accurate images of travelers while they’re moving in the booth and providing quick feedback about items they’re carrying. Current millimeter wave scanners require travelers to stand still with their arms extended.
Another key will be whether detection algorithms can be created that accurately interpret the images that both types of scanners create.
Image-analysis algorithms are already used with CT scanners to detect explosives in checked luggage. TSA told Forbes that 75% to 80% of checked bags are cleared without human intervention. But carry-on bags are trickier. They need to be checked for a wider variety of banned items, including guns and knives.
It can be difficult for algorithms to pick up the shape of a gun depending on the orientation, or to recognize if a gun has been broken up into pieces, or those pieces are split among different bags, says Norman Shanks, a baggage screening expert who ran security at London Heathrow in the late 1990s. “I’m not that convinced that we’ve got the image recognition for every prohibited item,” he tells Forbes. “It will come but we’re not there yet.”
While accuracy will need to be high and false-alarm rates low to achieve the reductions in checkpoint staffing that the Micro-X project envisions, it’s not clear that human beings pose stiff competition to detection algorithms. In tests in 2017, DHS investigators were able to smuggle mock weapons and explosives past TSA officers at checkpoints at least 70% of the time.
Still, cutting staff poses a risk, according to Shanks. It means fewer officers who might notice if a traveler is acting suspiciously. “Technologists want to talk about technology being the answer for everything, and it isn’t,” he says. Also needed are “the soft skills of behavior detection and observation techniques.”
Another question is whether automated instructions will enable enough passengers to use the new systems without help. Experience has shown that signs and videos are no substitute for a person giving directions, says Jeffrey Price, an aviation security consultant and professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver, who calls it “one of the inside secrets of our industry.”
“You have to tell them what to do every time or else they stand there and get confused,” Price says of air travelers. “Even if they do nothing else other than walk down a corridor, you still have to tell them to walk down the corridor.”
The holy grail of the industry is to boil down the process to just that — do away with checkpoints and have passengers scanned continuously while walking. DHS has been funding research at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory to develop technology to make that possible.
Fortune says a prototype for that dream may still be a couple of years away.
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