Australia puts body scanners to the test. Emma Kelly reports.
Body scanners have not exactly been a hit with passengers at airports around the world; with their introduction in the United States causing uproar, and even police questioning their use due to a high level of false alarms during at a recent test period in Germany. But an ongoing trial of body scanners at Australia’s two busiest airports has received a more favourable response, according to the government.
As part of a Government initiative an appraisal of L-3’s ProVision Automatic Target Detection (ATD) active millimetre wave radio frequency body scanners was carried out at Sydney International Airport from August 2-19. This was followed by a similar test run at Melbourne International Airport from September 5-30. The authorities worked with Sydney and Melbourne airports, screening providers and equipment manufacturers on the trial.
L-3 provided its equipment at no cost, the airports supplied screening officers and training and the Department of Infrastructure and Transport provided data and communications material for the public.
Passengers were asked to volunteer to be scanned by the technology. The Sydney appraisal saw passengers literally queuing up to try it out, according to the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, Anthony Albanese, with the scanner being used over 4,000 times during the three-week period. This figure includes a small number of passengers who were re-scanned to resolve alarms.
During the Sydney exercise, around 60% of passengers were cleared to proceed after being screened, with 40% identified as having metallic and non-metallic items in or under their clothing. “This clearance rate is significantly higher than what we have seen overseas and the authorities are confident that this rate will increase as processes are refined and passengers familiarise themselves with the requirements. When passengers did set off the alarm, the cause of the alarm was resolved quickly,” says the government.
No prohibited items were located during the Sydney phase of the trial and most of the alarms were purportedly caused by items such as wallets and jewellery. “They’re exactly the type of items the scanners are designed to detect and are evidence they are working,” says Albanese. “Feedback indicates that there is genuine traveller interest in the technology and what the government is doing to boost the security of our airlines,” he adds.
The Australian Government has tried to allay privacy and safety concerns that have arisen from the technology’s use in other parts of the world, particularly in the US. In Australia, the scanners produced a generic figure image for all travellers, without showing any features of the body. In addition, the government stresses that no individual’s image is stored or shared.
Furthermore, a body scanner emits 10,000 times less radio frequency energy than an average mobile phone call. The power density is also well within guidelines, with that produced by the ProVision body scanner measured at between 40 and 640 micro-watts per square metre – several thousand times less than the 10 watts per square metre standard. These measurements are taken at the closest accessible point – between 0.8-1.2in (2-3cm) – to the antennas; the individual being scanned would be 12-24in (30-60cm) away. Most of the millimetre waves are reflected within the outer 0.04in (1mm) of the body and bounce back to the receiving antennas within the scanner. Operators are not exposed.
The scanner does not affect implanted medical devices, such as pacemakers and defibrillators, due to their location under the skin, and the electromagnetic compatibility of these medical aids.
“There is no evidence to suggest that millimetre-wave body scanners, or other devices in this frequency and at the power density used by scanners, are a health risk for the travelling public or operators,” says the government.
The L-3 ProVision scanner works in three stages. First of all, a weak beam of radio waves is transmitted at the person being scanned from two rotating masts, which contain transmitting and receiving antennas, inside the body scanner. During this stage, the exposure of individuals to electromagnetic fields does not exceed two seconds.
In the second stage, the energy reflected by the body or any object on the body is received by the machine and analysed by the unit’s automatic threat recognition algorithm to detect any ‘threat’ anomalies.
In the third stage, after anomaly detection, a small box indicating its location is superimposed on a generic human image or ‘stick figure’ that is displayed on a monitor for analysis by screening staff.
This isn’t the first time that Australia has tested body scanners. The technology was previously assessed in 2008 at Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide airports. “The aim of the 2011 trials is to assist the government’s and airports’ fine-tune processes and procedures before the roll-out of body scanners at Australia’s eight international gateway airports,” says the Department of Infrastructure and Transport.
It adds: “The trial also provides passengers with an opportunity to familiarise themselves with the new technology, as well as the latest privacy enhancements, such as automatic threat recognition.”
The appraisal is helping the authorities to finalise the operational processes ahead of progressive implementation of body scanning technology in the first half of 2012.
The body scanner assessment is part of the Australian Government’s AUS$200 million (US$212m) ‘Strengthening Aviation Security’ initiative which was launched last year. This includes a comprehensive package of measures designed to reinforce Australia’s international and domestic aviation security regime against emerging threats. The launch followed the attempted terrorist attack on a US-bound flight from Amsterdam on December 25 in 2009. It showed that no nation can afford to be complacent when it comes to security.
Over a four-year period, the government is investing in new and improved security technologies, increased policing at airports, enhanced security procedures and strengthened international co-operation.
The programme has included an increase in the number of passengers subjected to explosive trace detection at the country’s major airports, with AUS$28.5 million (US$30.2m) provided by the government to help the industry introduce new screening technologies at passenger screening points, including body scanners, multi-view x-ray machines and bottle scanners.
In 2010, new technology was tested to detect explosives in liquids, aerosols and gels (LAG) at Sydney and Melbourne airports. On trial were two types of equipment capable of detecting liquid-based explosives, advanced x-ray for carry-on baggage and bottled liquid scanners. The LAG tests were successful, with over 7,000 people taking part. “The government is working towards a progressive lifting of LAG restrictions commencing in 2012, however, no decisions have been made as yet,” it says. No further trials are planned at this time.
A further AUS$32 million (US$34M) is being invested in screening at regional airports that are currently served by large turboprop aircraft. Coupled with this, more stringent training and performance requirements for security screening staff are being implemented.
Policing at the country’s airports is also being stepped up, with an additional AUS$17.7 million (US$18.8m) being spent on increasing the number of firearms and explosive detection dogs at major international airports by 50%. The government is also providing AUS$12.3 million (US$13m) to maintain Australian Federal Police presence at major airports.
In addition, AUS$18.2 million (US$19.3m) is being invested to strengthen international engagement and co-operation in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond, as well as to improve security on international flights. Visits, inspections and security assessments are being increased at last ports-of-call airports for flights coming in to Australia.
Around AUS$29.4 million (US$31.2m) is going towards new technology as part of the Enhanced Passenger Assessment & Clearance Programme to allow Australian Customs to assess a larger number of passengers earlier and faster, and share relevant data with intelligence, border management and law enforcement agencies. A further AUS$11.4 million (US$12.1m) is going towards the Next Generation Border Security Initiative which will use advanced data analysis and risk profiling to better identify and refer visa applicants who may present national security risks.
Australia puts body scanners to the test. Emma Kelly reports.