The Transportation Security Administration plans to deploy new security technologies this year that agency officials say could significantly enhance passenger screening at both airports and passenger rail stations across the country.
TSA plans to expand testing and evaluation of new 3-D imaging systems, known as Computed Tomography systems, to several additional airports in 2018. The new CT screening equipment, which entered testing last June, shoots hundreds of images with an X-ray camera that spins around the conveyor belt to provide officers with a 3-D picture of a carry-on bag to ensure it does not contain a threat. The system applies sophisticated algorithms for the detection of explosives.
“In my opinion, the technology piece is the one that will have, on the margin, the greatest impact on security effectiveness,” said TSA Administrator David Pekoske. “We should begin to see some CT machines at checkpoints around the country for testing purposes this year. And we hope to complete the initial testing by the end of the summer and then begin to deploy larger numbers of CT machines in fiscal year 2019.”
But lawmakers on Capitol Hill are pressing Pekoske to take additional steps to work with passenger rail operators, particularly Amtrak, to increase passenger screening in the wake of several high-profile terrorist attacks targeting rail and mass transit systems. In addition to the recent pipe bomb attack in a New York City subway, terrorist groups are publishing instructions on how to build bombs and devices designed to derail trains; laying out roadmaps for soft target and public area attacks; and calling for attacks on airports, passenger railroad stations, and inner city mass transit stations.
According to Pekoske, TSA is currently working with the New Jersey Transit system, Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority, Amtrak, and the Los Angeles Metro to assess the effectiveness of technologies designed to address threats associated with person- and vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices.
“We are testing a stand-off, person-borne IED detection system,” Pekoske said during a Jan. 23 Senate hearing. “This is in the final stages of operational testing and evaluation.”
The device, which has its roots in passive millimeter wave detection research that began 15 years ago, can tell if an individual is wearing an improvised explosive device by identifying any metallic or non-metallic objects that are blocking the naturally occurring emissions from a person’s body. If someone wearing a suicide vest walks by the unit, then an alarm is triggered.
“It doesn’t transmit any energy toward the individual whatsoever, it just reads the energy that somebody’s body is transmitting,” Pekoske said. “I took a demonstration of it a couple of weeks ago, and it’s very, very good.”
So far, testing the new system is covered in the Trump administration’s fiscal 2019 budget—scheduled to be released on Feb. 12—but acquisition will have to wait until fiscal year 2020, according to Pekoske.
It is important to note that TSA’s role in enhancing passenger rail and mass transit security is currently limited to intelligence and information sharing, regulation and rule enforcement, and assisting with research and development of new technologies. Any new technology developed by TSA will need to be owned and operated by the local transit system.