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TSA Testing New Technologies For Airport Security Screening

The TSA and manufacturers are scrambling for better airport security solutions. They're testing all manner of technologies, from screening chemicals in liquids to new uses for RFID.

The ban on airplane passengers taking liquids on board is one in many steps Transportation Security Administration screeners will take to increase security following the recent foiled United Kingdom terrorist plot.

The TSA expects to revisit screening processes for passengers and their luggage, as well as cargo packed into the belly of airplanes. Amy Kudwa, spokeswoman for the department, said Tuesday the TSA will continue to work with manufacturers to perfect various technologies, from screening for chemicals in liquids, to full-body scanning machines, to new uses for RFID technologies.

TSA engineers are testing new security technologies at a research and development lab in partnership with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate. In the Atlantic City, N.J. lab, which the DHS operates, there are dozens of technologies undergoing review.

Although technologies to screen for chemicals in liquids exist, they're not ready for deployment. There are several concerns, such as the device screens one bottle at a time, "considerably" slowing security lines, Kudwa said. Making matters worse, "the machines have a high false-alarm rate," she said.

It's not easy to move 2 million passengers through U.S. airports daily. Technologies that could help might work well in a lab, but when you use it dozens, if not hundreds, of times daily in a non-sterile environment screening everything from "(squeeze) cheese to Channel No. 5. That's a huge range of variables," Kudwa said. "Liquid explosive detection technology is not feasible for the near term."

Technologies that could soon move into airports are backscatter and milometer wave. Backscatter works similar to an x-ray. And although they are technologies that can detect explosives and weapons, the machines are too large and could create privacy issues because images are generated that eliminate clothing.

The Explosive Trace Portal, installed at about 37 airports, such as the Los Angeles International Airport, is rolling out this summer across the country. When a traveler steps into the chamber, he is blasted with air. That air dislodges tiny particles from the passenger. The machine sucks in the air with the trace particles to analyze them for explosive materials.

There are a few TSA projects focused on "perimeter security" and customer service that use radio frequency identification technology, Kudwa said.

"Some people are interested in what RFID can do for passenger tracking to enhance the customer experience through the airport, but any projects out there are in the very early stages," said Jeff Woods, principal analyst at Gartner. "RFID might speed you through the line faster, locate more quickly where passengers are in the airport, and coordinate services around premium travelers."

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