For commercialization success, this Homeland Security unit wins a prize

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Tom Temin  The Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) works to develop new technologies and get them into commercial production. A lot of work has focused on technologies to speed up airport screening, and make it more accurate. Now a unit of science and technology has won an interagency partnership award from the Federal Laboratory Consortium, specifically High Definition Advanced Imaging and shoe scanner technologies. Program manager John Fortune joined The Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Tom Temin  Well, tell us first of all about the technologies here because, you know, it’s kind of true, but people maybe overlooked the fact that over the years screening at airports really has improved many, many times over then it kind of kind of looked back to the early days to realize how far they’ve come. So tell us what these two latest technologies are that were able to be commercialized?

John Fortune  Sure. So while there had been really considerable areas of progress in airport screening, as you mentioned, over the last 10 to 15 to 20 years, there are some technologies that have been in the airport for quite some time, including the current what we call advanced imaging technologies, which are the passenger screening systems. The current versions in the airports were rolled out in the 2009 to 2010 timeframe. And what we’re basically doing is looking at a next generation version of that system. Think about standard definition television versus high definition television. This is, but we call it the HD-AIT, it’s the High Definition Advanced Imaging System. And what it does is it provides a much crisper, clearer picture of passengers and potential threats as they pass through that system. But it’s also coupled with the automatic algorithm so that the threat detection is automated, nobody views any images, as has always been the case for TSA for a very long time. So we’re basically trying to come up with a system that is much more effective in detecting threats on passengers, but also doesn’t pick up what we call false alarms. A false alarm is simply you have an item, clothing item, for example, that somehow shows up as a threat, when in fact, it’s just a pocket on your shirt. And that results often in secondary screening and passenger pat downs, it slows down the line, it’s not good for the passenger. It’s obviously not something TSA wants to have to do. So the better image that you can get and the better the computer algorithms are that are coupled with that system, the less likely it is that you’re gonna have to pat down people. So it really does two things. It detects threats better, but also is designed to get rid of some of these annoying  pat downs that travelers have to deal with.

Tom Temin  And on the shoe side that’s kind of coupled with this, I guess.

John Fortune  Yeah, absolutely. So the shoe issue has been one that’s really been kind of a tough nut to crack. Going back almost 15 years ago, passengers have been required to remove their footwear when they are traveling. And it’s a challenge to image footwear, because there’s lots of different kinds of shoes and thicknesses and materials. And so there have been some attempts in the past to come up with successful technologies to scan shoes. But we’re really looking for something that can do it very effectively, also very quickly, with the idea that perhaps it could be built into the existing passenger imaging system so that, you know, while you’re standing and having the passenger screened, your shoes will be screened at the same time, because the ultimate goal is to allow people to leave their shoes on at the checkpoint, which is something we haven’t been able to do for a very long time. And the neat thing about the shoe scanner is it’s really using a lot of the same pieces and parts that are in the High Definition Advanced Imaging System, you have the same types of antennas and the same types of computer processing. So we’re able to really make very good use of one investment that S&T has done on the passenger screening side and take a lot of the same components and use those to build the shoe scanner system. That’s really what that’s about.

Tom Temin  And by the way, I have a pair of flip flops, which I never wear on planes, but if I did, they have metal bottle openers fitted into the bottom, that’s the kind of thing I could get away with now because it’s just a harmless flat piece of bottle opener that would appear as just metal in there, you know otherwise.

John Fortune  And one of the things we have thought about because this is an experimental technology, right? So we are wondering how this is going to be best used, and we’re still working with TSA on what this would look like. So another possibility would be perhaps your shoes are scanned in an earlier step of the process, and you get a green light or a red light. So you could either be asked to remove your shoes, or perhaps your shoes are successfully scanned, and you can move on through wearing your footwear. So these are the types of things the operational side of the house that we’re still having very active discussions on TSA about where they began. Because you could definitely — I’m dreaming a little bit here — but you can imagine walking up where you’re putting your carry-on bag on the conveyor belt to go through the X-ray system and you’re standing on the shoe scanner, right? And the light turns green and you just walk through the shoes or the light turns red. No big deal, you just take your shoes off. What if three quarters of everybody can leave their shoes on? That would be pretty good, right? So we’re working very hard on the technology side, but we’re also working with TSA on how we could successfully implement the technology in the field.

Tom Temin  We’re speaking with John Fortune. He’s program manager for screening at speed at the Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate. And on the development side, these new versions of these technologies, how does it work? They’re developed under grants? And then once they are proven, then you move to the commercialization stage?

John Fortune  Correct. So we have a number of research and development awards with different laboratories or companies or some of the universities. We have a lot of different types of folks, we partner with S&T to develop new cutting edge technologies. And one of the neat things and you mentioned the award, the Federal Laboratory Consortium Award at the beginning of the show, one of the exciting things about this is it really does recognize the diverse array of partners that we put together at S&T to make this technology a reality. So, the actual building of the systems — the hardware of the shoe scanner and the high definition AIT — is done at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, PNL, up in Richland, Washington, their Department of Energy National Laboratory. We have them partnered up with another DOE national laboratory, Sandia National Laboratory, which is doing a lot of the software, the algorithms, the how do we detect the threats? And also very importantly, how can we make these systems very adaptable when they’re finally deployed. We don’t want to be stuck with the algorithms that are on there when we put them out in the field because computational science changes almost daily. So if somebody comes up with a new way to detect a new threat, we want to be able to very easily plug that into the system is already out in the field. So Sandia is helping us with that piece. We have to test the systems. And so we use one of our own laboratories, the Transportation Security Laboratory of Atlantic City, New Jersey, which is part of S&T. And they’ve done a tremendous job collecting real imagery and real data from these systems and we use that to further develop the systems and to test our algorithms. One really neat thing we did a few years back is we pulled in NASA, which is also part of the award. And NASA helped us run a prize competition with a company called Kaggle. And we were able to collect images on the High Definition AIT, that’s the passenger imaging system, up at TSL and released these images and we got about 500 people enter this competition, and we awarded prizes to the top eight entrants. And as a result of awarding those prizes, the government got rights to these algorithms, and now we’re developing the algorithms so they can be the future of threat detection. So we built the hardware piece and now we’ve got, from this prize competition, this really great software, a really great combination of different software approaches that can help us detect threats more effectively. And of course, I mentioned TSA as well. I mean this is all for TSA, their primary customer. And we talk with them and work with them consistently and constantly to make sure that we’re going in the correct direction and our building at S&T demonstrates their needs. So you know, this team that we’ve been able to put together on the award has been really critical. And so to your question, you know, we have different awards with these different entities so that they can fill these different needs within the program. And in the end, what we come out with is a fairly robust system with supporting software.  We actually very recently licensed that to a commercial partner with the idea of getting this out in the field hopefully in the next few years.

Tom Temin  Right. Got it. But the award is partly the interagency aspect, pulling together all of these expertise units from across the government to be able to test this technology, and then move it to commercial. So the commercial entity then is almost like a systems integrator to put all these parts together in a way that is deployable at scale. Fair way to put it?

John Fortune  I think that’s fair. You know, we build typically a limited number of prototypes when we do research and development. And sometimes we’ll build one, we’ll take it out, we’ll take it to our Transportation Security Laboratory, or we’ll take it, put it in an airport for a short period of time, spin the wheels on it and see how it works, you know, and then we’ll go back and we’ll adjust and perhaps build a second prototype. So we’re not in the business of building large numbers of systems. So when we get a design that is showing enough promise that it’s going to meet TSA security standards and fit into their operational concepts, then it becomes time to pull in somebody from the commercial space that as you said, can do system optimization, manufacturing optimization and start turning out of larger number of units for ultimate implementation in the field.

Tom Temin  I’m really fascinating. I guess I’d fly barefoot if I never had to go to the restroom. John Fortune is the program manager for screening at speed at the Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate. Thanks so much for joining me.

John Fortune  Thank you. Thanks for having me.

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