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How to Make Our Airports Safer

Updated: Nov 14, 2019

Threats to airlines will not go away anytime soon. Make it harder to hijack a plane, and someone will try to shoot it down. Install X-rays at an airport, and someone will pack plastic explosives in his shoe. Trying to keep ahead of criminals, researchers have been working on a number of technologies, from smarter facial recognition software to faster explosive trace detection.

- Faster Explosive Trace Detection

Detecting explosive traces on luggage is a time-consuming process involving wipe downs with a swatch of cloth and a special device for residue analysis. However, Michigan State University researchers have come up with a faster method using low-power laser.

Basically, it fires two pulses at a target, one in resonance with particular chemical frequencies found in explosives and the other, a "shadow" or control pulse, slightly out of resonance. A reaction in only the non-control pulse indicates the presence of explosives. It's quick, efficient, and could be incorporated within X-ray machines.

- Smarter Facial Recognition Software

Despite the excitement (and fear) it engenders, today's facial recognition software is a bit of a letdown. That's because the algorithms look at faces as a math problem—for example, measuring the distance between a nose and a mouth or looking at the face as a dense pixel pattern. As a result, the technology is often thwarted by off-angle and low-resolution images. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University's CyLab Biometrics Center are working on a system that processes images more like a human brain does (for example, factoring in age, gender, and ethnicity, and recognizing a face from multiple angles), and can create 3D models of a face from passport photos.

- Distributed Chemical Sensors

The U.S. Naval Research Laboratory is developing a 5 mm x 5 mm sensor that, when distributed throughout an airport, can track in real time chemical plumes that might be wafting off people and luggage. This tiny sensor is called Silicon Nanowires in a Vertical Array with a Porous Electrode (SIN-VApor), and it is superior to dogs in terms of analysis (because Fido can't describe in detail what he is detecting) while being far more deployable than gas chromatograph-mass spectrometers. Christopher Field, the lead researcher on SiN-VAPOR, sees it eventually paired with other technologies such as CCTV cameras and facial recognition software to create a "checkpoint-less" airport.

- Missile Defense for Passenger Planes

No will ever accuse the Israelis of being lax on airline security. And the nation upped its game in June when the israelian carrier El Al installed its first C-Music missile defense system on the belly of a Boeing 737. Developed by Elbit Systems, C-MUSIC is a countermeasures suite that zaps incoming shoulder-fired missiles with a laser. This confuses the infrared seeker head of the missile, causing it to break lock with the target. Northrop Grumman has installed similar systems on FedEx Express cargo planes, but El Al is the first national carrier to adopt the countermeasure.

- Long-Range Iris Detection

The same Carnegie Mellon University center that is developing advanced facial recognition software has also been extending the range of iris scanning technology. Whereas current systems must be 12 inches of closer to a face to "enroll" an iris into a database, the Carnagie Mellon Device can perform high quality scans at a distance of almost 40 feet in just 3 to 6 seconds. Marios Savvides, director of the university's CyLab Biometrics Center, sees this as ideal for counterinsurgency, allowing troops to distinguish locals from militants at a standoff range. Airport security officers can also use the device to quickly confirm passenger identities.

- Gold-Coated Pilot Glasses

It's a federal offense to flash a laser pointer at an aircraft, but that hasn't stopped some miscreants from trying to blind pilots. In 2012 alone there were 3482 laser incidents, according to the FAA. University of Central Florida scientist Jayan Thomas has been working with gold nanoclusters to develop pilot glass the block high-intensity light. The glasses would work against all laser wavelengths, while allowing colors and eye-safe light to pass through the lenses. CREDIT: Popular Mechanics


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