Airport perimeter security measures in need of reexamination

June 17, 2015
Current technology limited in its ability to effectively detect breaches

In April, an individual breached the perimeter at Mineta San Jose International Airport, marking the fifth such occurrence at the airport in less than a year. The breach became the latest in what is an unacceptably long list of high-profile intrusions at airports around the world. An Associated Press investigation found that there have been at least 268 perimeter security breaches at 31 major airports in the U.S. between 2004 and 2014. This doesn’t include smaller airports or those that had incomplete data or declined to provide information on breaches. The TSA’s data is even more disturbing, showing 1,388 breaches at 450 U.S. airports between 2001 and 2011. Together, this data highlights just how critical the need is for accurate, dependable intrusion detection systems to protect aviation assets.

Because of the high security measures passengers experience at checkpoints and throughout terminals, it can be surprising to learn just how vulnerable airport perimeters are. While of course airports do attempt to secure their perimeters, often the technologies they employ simply aren’t up to the task.

For example, Mineta, like many airports, has a video surveillance system with cameras trained on their perimeter or fence line. Yet in each of the five recent security breaches at that airport, the security system failed to detect intruders.

Video systems based on visible light have a history of poor performance when used to detect intruders outdoors due to variable light conditions that interfere with the visible light cameras’ detection sensors, meaning they simply can’t see intruders, let alone detect them. Fence-mounted vibration sensors are another technology airports commonly employ for perimeter security. However, the vibrations caused by planes taking off and landing can make these systems prone to false alarms. They also require cameras for alarm assessment, making them complicated and costly to deploy along large airport perimeters. Given the shortcomings of visible-light video and fence sensor detection systems, both can fall short, leaving little more than a chain link fence separating secure areas from roadways and other open public areas. By climbing that fence, an individual can gain access to a runway, employee area, parked aircraft or other sensitive locations with less difficulty than getting a bottle of water through a TSA checkpoint.

So far, most if not all the intrusions that have occurred at airports in the U.S. have been harmless and the intruders have been apprehended, although those apprehensions haven’t always happened quickly. In some cases, individuals have been able to reach runways, whether on foot or in a vehicle. Thankfully, there haven’t been any catastrophic outcomes from these breaches, but there exists a very real potential that terrorists could breach airport perimeters just as easily. This is why it’s crucial to detect intrusions outside of the perimeter; once that perimeter has been breached, it may be too late.

Because of the large size of airport properties and the number of moving objects within, airport perimeter security can be more challenging than securing perimeters of other types of facilities. Even with these challenges, the reality is that there are technologies and approaches available right now that airports can deploy to effectively close this security loophole and eliminate the risks.

For perimeter and other outdoor security applications, lighting is often poor or nonexistent. Adding light sources is one way to mitigate this challenge, but this is very expensive and can interfere with air traffic. Thermal cameras, on the other hand, not only eliminate the need for supplemental lighting in complete darkness, but they also detect intruders in glare conditions caused by the rising or setting sun, headlights, reflected light and other sources. Smart thermal cameras can also support built-in electronic stabilization to ensure a high probability of accurate detection without false alerts caused by airport vibrations. In addition, smart thermal cameras are capable of monitoring and protecting over longer distances, allowing a single camera to cover the same area that would require multiple visible light cameras. This enables an airport to take advantage of potentially significant cost savings while ensuring the most accurate and reliable perimeter detection.

While perimeter protection is essential to airport security, it can be expensive to protect the entire perimeter. For a large airport, the cost could be in the millions of dollars. As a result, the unfortunate reality is that airports unable to afford reliable perimeter detection systems will often stick with whatever system they have in place, regardless of how susceptible it may be to nuisance alarms or how limited its ability to provide reliable detection. In situations where budgetary limitations simply won’t allow for expenditures on these systems to monitor the entire perimeter, there is another highly practical approach to outdoor security that can be adopted by airports in certain situations.

With this approach, the strategy is to limit detection to the specific areas that airports need to protect. Does the entire perimeter, often consisting of miles and miles of fencing, need to be protected, or is the need limited to defined areas where aircraft and hangars are located? Do intrusions occur in one particular area, or several specific areas? For example, intrusions are more likely to occur in a specific area, such as near a gate. If an airport were to focus coverage on protecting fuel, planes and other assets, as well as the main entry and exit points, this could go a long way toward solving the most critical outdoor security problems at reduced costs.

This is where recent innovations play a big role. Today, a single smart thermal camera can detect intruders with great accuracy over an area as wide as a football field. By leveraging existing infrastructure where power and mounting options are already available, airports can immediately address the most vulnerable areas for the cost of a few cameras. This concept can be deployed either as a standalone solution or as a starting point to address specific security needs, which can be expanded to allow a full-scale perimeter protection system to be deployed at a later date as budgets permit.

There is too much at stake to continue to allow these vulnerabilities to exist, especially when we have the tools and technologies to eliminate them. Successful airport perimeter solutions come down to detection accuracy and economics, and advanced thermal cameras deliver both in a variety of situations, including the challenging environment of airport perimeters. And with new thermal solutions available to provide spot protection of particularly vulnerable assets and areas at a lower cost, there’s no longer any excuse for perimeter breaches at any airport.

About the AuthorJohn Romanowich is president/chief executive officer and founder of SightLogix, a manufacturer of intelligent video surveillance systems based in Princeton, N.J.

About the Author

John Romanowich

John Romanowich is CEO of SightLogix Inc.