Airport security is a tech-firm gold rush
Companies compete for government contracts to design and make new
baggage-screening and body-scanning devices.
By Hugo Martín >>>
January 26, 2010
airline passengers, the attempted Christmas Day attack and a directive
by President Obama to pursue advanced screening technology will
certainly mean added security procedures at airports. ¶ So for
high-tech companies in Southern California and elsewhere, the increased
focus on airport security means new opportunities to land hefty
government contracts. ¶ Among those is Syagen Technology Inc., a
company with 20 employees that has built an airport screening device
that blows air on travelers and then analyzes the cast-off particles to
detect explosives. The Transportation Safety Administration shelved an
older version of the device because of maintenance problems. But,
company President Jack Syage said, the Christmas attack has renewed
interest in the next generation of air-analyzing units. ¶
has started to talk about new technology at the airports," he said.
firms, including a small New York company that makes a shoe-scanning
device and a Torrance venture that builds screeners to take full-body
images of passengers, have shifted into high gear in recent weeks to
meet the renewed security efforts.
And plenty of money is at stake.
Obama administration set aside $1 billion last year in stimulus funds
for new security technology for the TSA. About $700 million of that
will be spent to improve baggage screening efforts, and $300 million is
allocated for technology to detect explosives carried by passengers.
response to a presidential order this month to "aggressively pursue
advanced screening technology" at airports, Homeland Security Secretary
Janet Napolitano said her agency would move quickly to deploy new
machinery and would work with other government agencies to develop
cutting-edge security equipment.
Some of the new technology may
also come from government scientists. The Homeland Security
Department's science and technology directorate operates a laboratory
in New Jersey where technology is developed and tested. For example,
scientists at the lab are trying to create a device that, much like
trained dogs, can smell explosives.
"There are a lot of things
we are looking at that are not ready for prime time," said John S.
Verrico, a spokesman for the directorate. "A lot of it may not even
Such devices will be added to what analysts call a
"layered approach" to airport security. This means that before
passengers board an airplane, they must clear a series of security
measures and devices such as watch lists, X-ray scanners, metal
detectors and full-body image scanners.
Despite the advanced wizardry of today's security devices, some
terrorists might already be devising ways to skirt them.
though it is a layered approach, it is fairly predictable," said Steve
Vinsik, a vice president at Unisys Corp., one of the many larger
companies also involved in the rush to improve airport security. The
Pennsylvania firm won a contract last month to design and manage a
security system for Los Angeles International, L.A./Ontario
International and Van Nuys airports.
Unisys evaluates and
coordinates the use of different technologies, but Vinsik said he
believes more money should be spent to train and dispatch airport
"At the end of the day, there is no computer system that is going to
replace that," he said.
Still, small and large technology companies see the heightened concern
about airline security as a chance to turn a profit.
Goldberg, president of IDO Security, a New York company with 11
employees, was thrilled last month when the TSA issued a "request for
information" on devices that screen shoes for weapons and explosives.
request means the TSA wants to gather information about the technology
on the market, with an eye toward eventually ordering the devices.
About nine years ago, a man on a flight from Paris to Miami tried to
ignite an explosive hidden in his shoes.
Goldberg submitted to
the TSA information on his invention, the Magshoe, a step-on device
that screens shoes while they're still on passengers' feet. The units,
priced between $5,000 and $7,000 each, can detect metal and metal
compounds in explosive material. The Magshoe is already in use at
airports in Israel and will soon be deployed in China.
"The time for our technology has definitely come," Goldberg said.
the attempted attack on Christmas Day, in which a Nigerian national is
accused of trying to detonate explosives hidden in his underwear on a
flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, the TSA announced plans to buy 300
new full-body scanners that can produce what looks like a nude image of
passengers, showing weapons and explosives hidden under clothes.
Detection Inc., a New Jersey-based security technology firm with about
2,500 employees, is testing a full-body scanner that can produce a
passenger image instantly. (Similar devices take up to 15 seconds to
create the image.) The units sell for about $170,000 each.
TSA is aware of this technology," said Mark Laustra, vice president of
homeland security for Smiths Detection, which has been making X-ray
machines and other security devices for airports since the 1980s. "The
indications we have are that it is something they want to look at more
Other security companies, such as Rapiscan Systems of
Torrance and L-3 Communications Holdings Inc. of New York, also plan to
compete for the TSA contract for full-body scanners.
aviation security officials believed the future of airport security was
in explosive trace portals, which analyze particles blown off of
In 2005 and 2006, the TSA bought more than 100 such
portals at a cost of about $20 million. The devices, installed in 36
airports, resemble door thresholds. When a passenger steps into the
threshold, puffs of air dislodge particles from the skin and clothes.
The trace portals analyze the particles to determine whether the
passenger had come in contact with explosive materials. There are also
desktop devices that analyze particles picked up by swabs swiped on
passengers or their luggage.
But in 2007 the TSA shelved the
portals, built by GE Security and Smiths Detection, because high levels
of dust at airport terminals caused maintenance issues and triggered
too many false alarms.
However, Syage said that after the
Christmas Day attack, a TSA official told him there was renewed
interest in testing Syagen's next generation of trace portals. Syagen,
he said, has solved the problems with maintenance and false alarms, and
the portals sell for about $130,000 each.
"Our contacts in the
Department of Homeland Security and TSA indicate that portals like ours
are getting serious reconsideration," Syage said.
declined to comment on Syage's assertion, but a spokesman said the
agency continues to research several technologies to keep ahead of
For example, the TSA has begun testing a
hand-held scanner that can test liquids carried by passengers for
potentially explosive materials. In 2006, British authorities foiled a
terrorist plot to detonate liquid explosives on U.S.-bound flights over
In November, the TSA awarded Smiths Detection a
$22-million order for liquid scanners. The hand-held device shoots a
laser beam through a clear container, such as a water bottle, and
analyzes the resulting spectrum to determine whether the container
holds potentially dangerous material.
Said Laustra of Smiths Detection: "We are deploying it to airports
2010 Los Angeles Times