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Duke researchers look to crackdown on airport security lines

A group of Duke researchers are trying to make lengthy airport security lines a thing of the past.

Researchers at the University aim to replace the current body-imaging millimeter wave scanners found at airports with machines that can recognize the chemical composition of substances in luggage without requiring people to stop or even wait in line. The project, funded by the United States Department of Homeland Security, hopes to put this technology in airports in as few as three years.

Instead of machines that scan people individually, there would be a corridor lined with sensors that could scan for illegal substances, said researcher Lawrence Carin, a professor of electrical and computer engineering. He said that the change would make travel more secure and convenient.

“[The technology] should have a huge impact on speed and on safety,” Carin said.

The innovations would cut down on lines in several ways, for example making it so that travelers do not have to take laptops or liquids out of their bags, said David Brady, the head of the project and Michael J. Fitzpatrick Professor of electrical and computer engineering.

Jeff Glass, a professor of electrical and computer engineering and director of the Pratt School’s master of engineering management and entrepreneurship, said that the system could be utilized in places other than airports as well.

“If you go to visit Congress or a federal building, you could go through similar scanners,” he said. “The goal here is to avoid that bottleneck.”

There are significant hurdles to a large-scale implementation of a new airport security system, said David Schanzer, associate professor of the practice for public policy.

“Logistically, we have invested billions in the infrastructure in the airport,” he said. “Any change that would require a different infrastructure would be a big cost.”

Schanzer said that although the current infrastructure would be difficult to replace, the technology could be seen as a politically popular long term cost-cutting measure.

“If we needed fewer [Transportation Security Administration agents], that would be seen as a good way for Homeland Security to cut costs,” he said. “Congress would welcome this.”

Carin said that as engineers, his team was more focused on the technology rather than the political implications. He added, though, that he believed the system would be better for travelers in many respects, including privacy.

Researchers from other institutions are impressed with the work being done at Duke.

“It’s cutting-edge. It’s great work,” said Michael Silevitch, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Northeastern University, who works on similar technologies.

Glass said that although it would be nice to perfect the technology at Duke, it is more important for the University to contribute to the larger national effort to improve airport security.

“If an instrument uses our components, that’s as much a win as if we develop the whole instrument,” he said. “What’s important is that we show that we are leaders in this field.”

Glass said that the technology is on track to be implemented in airports in three years, but it will take longer to set up systems in other locations.

Carin said that he too was optimistic, but that he knew there would be challenges ahead.

“We’ll get it done, but it’s not going to be easy,” he said.


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