Detection systems market at a crossroads

In the wake of the attempted bombing of a U.S. airliner over Detroit last month, there has been a lot of public outcry for enhanced screening measures at airports, particularly as it pertains to body scanners. However, more traditional screening methods such as metal detectors and baggage X-rays, may remain the most prevalent solutions if Congress enacts legislation that prohibits the use of body scanners as a primary screening method.

Despite that fact that President Obama ordered the Department of Homeland Security to acquire nearly $1 billion worth of advanced-technology, including body scanners in sweeping changes earlier this month, a bill currently sits on the floor of the Senate that would render that technology useless.

H.R. 2027, also known as the Aircraft Passenger Whole-Body Imaging Limitations Act of 2009, “prohibits the use of whole-body imaging technology as the sole or primary method of screening aircraft passengers. Allows its use only if another method of screening, such as metal detection, demonstrates cause for preventing a passenger from boarding an aircraft.”

According to Justin Siller, a market analyst for IMS Research, the legislation was passed in June by the House and currently awaits a vote before the full Senate. Siller believes that if the resolution passes that there will not be widespread implementation of body scanners across the nation.

“It’s two markets, the millimeter wave and the backscatter (body scanning technologies) and metal detection,” he said. “The metal detection (market) will continue to grow well if (it) remains the primary screening option. If it doesn’t, basically the markets will reverse and you will see these other technologies growing at a rapid pace while metal detectors will slow.

The two types of aforementioned technologies, millimeter wave and backscatter X-ray, both essentially provide users with a full body image of a subject using different methods. The millimeter wave or ultra high-frequency wave is transmitted from two antennas simultaneously as they rotate around the body. The wave energy reflected back results in a three dimensional image of the person. With a backscatter X-ray, the radiation that reflects back from an object is used to construct a two-dimensional image of what it being scanned. Both Smiths Detection and L-3 Communications have millimeter wave scanning systems available on the market, while Rapiscan and American Science & Engineering offer backscatter X-ray systems.

Another type of technology that was being used in pilot testing by the Transportation Security Administration, but have now been banned for use include trace portal detection systems, also known as “puffers.” These systems were designed to shoot multiple puffs of air at an airline passenger, thus flushing out particles that could be analyzed for explosives or drugs. According to Siller, these systems are not being phased out by the TSA due to reliability problems.

Despite the numerous privacy concerns that body scanners have evoked in the U.S. and Western Europe, Siller said that these technologies have been widely implemented in regions where the same concerns are not as prevalent, such as the Middle East. Worries about TSA agents looking at nude outlines may also be on the decline in the U.S. According to a recent USA Today/ Gallop poll, 78 percent of respondents approved of the use of these new technologies, with 67 percent saying they would be willing to be scanned.

“For the most part (the argument) is being framed that you have to make a choice between (privacy and security),” said Robert Daly, chief technology officer and senior vice president of engineering for Florida-based Brijot Imaging Systems.

As opposed to active RF millimeter wave and backscatter X-ray, Brijot’s passive millimeter wave technology, which is currently in trials with the TSA, doesn’t create a detailed anatomical image of a person’s body, thus reducing privacy concerns. They essentially use a receiver to look for energy coming off the human body and anything that blocks that energy is seen as an anomaly.
Daly believes that we will see deployment of full body screening systems at airports this year due in part to the money that was recently allocated by the president for airport security.

“I think (the recent terror incident) is going to be impactful in general because it seems to us that (the government) is very motivated to implement whole body imaging in U.S. airports and more importantly I think it will eventually become a mandate that if you want to fly into the U.S., you will have to undergo some sort of screening on the outbound end.

The market for other airport security systems in addition to passenger screening systems does seem poised for growth. According to published reports, Paris-based manufacturer Safran estimates that the global market for biometrics will grow 15 percent over the next three years, while the explosives detection market is predicted to grow at 12 percent annually.

Once the frenzy for new and improved detection technology dies down, however, Luke Ritter, principle for global trade security at security consulting firm Ridge Global, says that airports may turn to man’s best friend for a reliable and cheaper alternative to body scanners.

“We are still very event driven when it comes to the way that we think about investing and implementing security technology and I think that can be a mistake. This kind of threat has been present, it’s not new. We’re kind of treating it as something new because of the way it was brought on the plane, but the threat of somebody getting on board and trying to blow up the plane in flight with a bomb that’s on their body is not a new challenge,” he said. “I happen to believe that the technology that we should be focusing on in this case is the dog’s nose. “It is my understanding that working dogs are often less expensive from a total lifecycle cost perspective and in many cases more reliable. They also provide some flexibility on the concept of operations side that you don’t have with fixed, installed scanning systems.”   

In contrast to scanning systems, which can run in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for purchase and lifecycle maintenance, dogs are relatively inexpensive. According to Ritter, a fully trained bomb-sniffing dog delivered cost between $8,000 and $9,000, with annual upkeep of about $15,000. The dog’s handler will earn between $40,000 and $50,000 a year and it will cost about $50,000 to train them to work with the dog. Taking everything into account, for around $75,000 a year, the user gets a dog that can work for about 5 to 7 years and detect explosives with a 90 to 95 percent accuracy rate, according to Ritter.