Could the future of the airport security line function like the self-checkout process at your local grocery store? Join host John Verrico and S&T Screening at Speed Program Manager Dr. John Fortune as they explore the future of passenger screening. Dr. Fortune and his team are working to improve the traveler experience during this vital process, and you won’t want to miss the discussions about new technologies in development that could make it happen. While this work is not without its challenges, Dr. Fortune and his team are optimistic about the impact they could have on a growing traveling public.
- Screening at Speed Fact Sheet
- LRBAA Today: Screening at Speed Video - YouTube
- News Release: S&T Awards Funding for Aviation Self-Screening Concept and Prototype
- News Release: S&T Awards Funding to Design Passenger Self-Screening Hardware System
- News Release: DHS S&T Awards Funding to Design Passenger Self-Screening Solution
- Recorded on: November 28, 2022
Guest: Dr. John Fortune, Program Manager, Screening at Speed
Host: John Verrico, Chief of Media & Community Relations
[00:00:00] Dave: This is Technologically Speaking, the official podcast for the Department of Homeland Security, Science and Technology Directorate, or S&T, as we call it. Join us as we meet the science and technology experts on the front lines, keeping America safe.
[00:00:16] John Verrico: Hello, and welcome to Technologically Speaking, the official podcast of the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate. I'm John Verrico, and I have with me today a very, very special guest. Dr. John Fortune, who's a program manager for the Screening at Speed Program. Good afternoon, John. And how are you today?
[00:00:34] John Fortune: Good afternoon, John. I'm doing well. Thank you.
[00:00:37] John Verrico: You know, it's been a long time since we've had a chance to chat, and I'm so glad that you're on this episode.
[00:00:42] John Fortune: Thank you for having me. I'm excited to talk about some of the work that we're doing today.
[00:00:46] John Verrico: You know, John, you've been with S&T for quite a while now. How long have you been here?
[00:00:50] John Fortune: 17 years.
[00:00:52] John Verrico: Wow, man, you are even. Rocks don't even live that long, man. No, I've been here only 15, and I know that you've been around, you know, for longer than I, so I'm so glad that, we've had opportunities to work together on some really cool programs over the years, and this one has become kind of a favorite, screening at speed. It hits so close to home for so many people, and especially the traveling public obviously. So, what is screening at speed? What, you know, what does that actually mean?
[00:01:19] John Fortune: Yeah, thanks John. I think you're absolutely right. Anybody that's ever gone through an airport screening process, even once it sticks with you, you understand, what's involved and, the complexities and the challenges and so that's really what this program's about. It's about improving, that process really twofold. One, to make sure that we keep the traveling public as safe and secure as absolutely possible, but at the same time for, to look for ways to improve that experience that the traveler has as they go through the screening process. So, it's really a twofold, aspect of the program.
[00:01:48] John Verrico: Well, you know, there's so many people that go through the, the screening process at airports, and other ports of entry too. I know that TSA processes, especially around the holidays, like 2 million travelers a day, it's like crazy amounts of people.
[00:02:02] John Fortune: Just this past Thanksgiving, TSA screened over two and a half million people on the Sunday following the Thanksgiving holiday. It was actually the most people that TSA had screened, since the COVID pandemic.
[00:02:12] John Verrico: You know, when you are dealing with that many people, obviously you want to get people through as quickly as possible, and so I know that TSA has got this goal, and if I'm not mistaken, it's 300 people per hour per line.
[00:02:29] John Fortune: Yeah, that's right. 300, that's sort of a target. 300 people per hour per lane, with a possibility of even going more quickly as some of the technology matures and potentially as we pursue new concepts that can be implemented, to improve the way we do business today.
[00:02:44] John Verrico: Hey, you know, John, I am not a mathematician, but I started doing some math to try to figure out how many people, you know, how quickly that is. We're talking what, like eight seconds a person?
[00:02:54] John Fortune: Yeah, it's, I guess it's about, 12 seconds a person, but yeah it's pretty quick. there has to be some consideration about how each aspect of this checkpoint can operate as efficiently as and as interconnected as possible. Of course, the, when you think of a checkpoint, there's really two main functions that happen. The first thing is that the passenger's belongings have to go through some sort of an X-ray screening process. And the second piece is the passenger themselves must somehow be screened, be it, through a metal detector, which is primarily used in pre-check or a millimeter wave imager, which is used in standard screening. But both those processes must happen, and as you point out, they have to happen fairly efficiently to maintain or to achieve that level of passenger throughput per hour.
[00:03:37] John Verrico: Let's just dive right into this. What are we doing to try to improve this process and make it work? So, I mean, first of all, it's amazing that it works as well as it does now, and that we're trying to make it even faster and more secure.
[00:03:51] John Fortune: Yeah. Sot, when I think about what screening at speed is, is trying to accomplish, I sort of think about the short term, the midterm, and the long term aims of the S&T program for screening at speed. In, in the short term, we're looking at ways to make the existing process better. And that tends to be can we replace a current piece of the checkpoint with improved technology to help the, overall, the overall functionality be better. Can we get the person through, more quickly, but also, be adaptive to new and emerging threats, which is something we always have to be aware of in the homeland security space. In the sort of the midterm, we're thinking about other ways that we can redesign the checkpoint or maybe move pieces and parts around and improve how the checkpoint functions. It might look a bit different than it does today. And then in the really distant future, and I'm talking maybe 10, 15, even 20 years down the road, we do think about what a future screening process might look like and whether it would be a checkpoint at all, or whether there might be a way as a person moves through an airport, they could be screened in a different manner rather than a single location that's really thinking down the road. So those are kind of the three ways I think about it. We try to come up with short term solutions to improve the processes today, some midterm solutions that might rework a few things and then thinking in the very long term, how can we, really reimagine what security screening should look like in an airport.
[00:05:10] John Verrico: So, John, let me ask you this. We're talking security screening and I think we all really understand what that means, but can you explain in, in real, you know, simple terms, what is it that we're looking for and what are we trying to prevent from happening?
[00:05:23] John Fortune: Sure. So, there are certain things that, that obviously the Transportation Security Administration, and worldwide partners don't want to have on airplanes. And there's some obvious things, explosives. And there are also lists of lots of prohibited items. Be it weapons, knives. martial arts weapons, there's a whole list of things on the TSA website that you're not allowed to bring onto airplanes. And so, the screening process really just about that, is making sure that as people enter the checkpoint, that they can, with a great deal of certainty, know that either in the carryon baggage that they have or on their person themselves, that, that there's nothing passing through the checkpoint that shouldn't be on the aircraft. And that's really what it's about. And at the same time, there are, you know, lots of varieties of completely harmless items that a traveler might bring through the checkpoint. So, it's sort of, you know, finding a needle in a haystack, so to speak, and, and not identifying the haystack. And that's one of the real challenges we have with screening bags is something called we call false alarms. And it basically means that your bag is harmless. There's nothing in there that should not be allowed in the plane. but for whatever reason, it sets off the X-ray machine. And the end result of an unsuccessful passenger screen is some type of secondary screen, usually a pat down, which obviously, you know, like to avoid. And in an ideal world, the passenger and their bags can be quickly and successfully screened and there can be a positive confirmation that there's no items remaining on the passenger and there's no harmful items, no prohibited items in the bags. In a nutshell, and a lot of the short term work we're doing is simply developing systems. X-ray systems that screen bags better and more accurately, and passenger screening technologies that are less likely to cause false alarms. We want to find all the bad stuff, but we want to make sure that we keep that false alarm rate as low as possible so that people are not burned by having to, to buy an extra two or three or five minutes to checkpoint, to have their bags searched or to go through the pat down process.
[00:07:09] John Verrico: Was there a particular incident that somebody said, oh, enough is enough, we've got to make this better or is this just, somebody said all along, we've got to get this better. And that's how the, how did the program actually start?
[00:07:21] John Fortune: So, the screening, procedures and technologies that are in play today are, are largely based on well-known historic instances going back to, the PanAm flight in 1988 or 9 11. But as far as the program itself, the screening speed program at S&T, it dates back to around 2015. And I wouldn't tie it to a specific incident, but more a realization that we need to get a little bit better at how we think about the problem. Up to that point, there was a lot of really, good research and development going on to develop better X-ray systems and develop better passenger screening systems. And, and we still certainly do that. We work in that space. But I think the missing element was, thinking about how the individual elements of screening work together as a whole. Because, I often say you can only out sensor the problem. What I mean by that is you can, build a better X-ray system to screen backs, or you can come up with a better, a more efficient technology to screen passengers. But if you only do things one system at a time, that's not going to necessarily meet the end goal of a seamless, efficient, and, and a highly effective system for finding new and emerging threats. So, the goal behind screening and speed is really to look at the problem holistically and think about not just the individual technologies, but how they work together. And, and not only how we develop better, better hardware, new technologies, new machines, but how do we develop new software, new computer algorithms to be more efficient at finding, threat items and sorting out the bad from the good. So, a lot of that is what has gone into the concept of screening at speed. It's not just developing better systems, better new technologies, we do that. But it's also looking at the big picture and how the individual technologies work together to achieve the end goal.
[00:09:02] John Verrico: I imagine that you have run into a few roadblocks as you're trying to come up with this re-envisioning of a system. When people are used to doing things a certain way and then you change that up because it's a new process, that can be potentially problematic. So, what kinds of roadblocks are you writing into in some of this stuff?
[00:09:21] John Fortune: Sure. So sometimes we run into the roadblock on, on what I'm calling the simple piece. It's really not simple because even dividing new passenger imaging systems, for example, or new x-ray systems, these are complex technologies and, they have to be really precise to detect the items that need to be detected. and also to avoid detecting items that we're not worried about. So just the basics is hard. and so, we certainly had, you know, challenges where we think we have a technology that's looking promising and we found out, oh, you know, we just can't manufacture this key piece of the system, reproducible or without issue. And so sometimes we have to change direction in the developing technology. So that's one aspect is each individual thing we're working on is really a challenge as it is because just the space we're dealing with. but as. Rethinking how operations work, that's a much longer-term process. So that's where our partnerships with TSA become really important and where we think about, not just, you know, obviously don't stress something out in the field and say, let's go. We have to think about how we can do an operational demonstration or an operational test of a technology and we have a number of ways we can do that. There's an innovation checkpoint at Harry Reid airport out in Las Vegas that TSA maintains. That's one testbed that we have the opportunity to use. We also sometimes do testing, obviously, TSL Transportation Security Laboratory as part of DHS S&T, and also the TSIF, which is the TSA Security Integration Facility, which is a facility that TSA maintains where we can test, new system concepts. So ever goes into a fully functioning airport operational, context, we have to think about how we can test, the technology, and especially if we're reinventing a little bit how we do the process, that has to be tested over and over again.
[00:11:05] John Verrico: Yeah, this whole thing is fascinating, and I love the fact that, you know, like you said, everything is, got to be tested and tried out and before it gets rolled out, right? It's not like we put together a new widget and then put it out there and go, here you go guys. Go and use this. There's a lot of work that goes on behind that. And I remember this is an enormous challenge, and the fact that you're making the progress that you are is just beyond belief.
[00:11:28] John Fortune: Thank you, and yeah, I'm a scientist at heart. I spent years working in a laboratory and you can do a lot of cool stuff in a laboratory, but it's entirely different when you have to take a technology and boil it down and fit it in the right size and make it work quickly enough and accurately enough and use the type of power that's available. And you don’t have the have the same options when you're working in a functional airport that you do when you're in a laboratory. And, and making those technologies workable in a real-world setting is definitely one of our big challenges.
[00:11:55] John Verrico: So, tell me about some of the successes that you've had and some of the progress that we've made.
[00:11:59] John Fortune: Yeah. Okay. So, one of the technologies we have developed is a high-definition passenger imaging system. So, if you think about, older television sets versus your new 4K, high-definition sets and the much better pictures you get, the idea is to provide better images the passenger that then are examined through, automated computer algorithms. And that combination, uh, is used to determine whether a person needs to be pulled aside for secondary screening or a pat down versus whether the person passed through. And the idea is you get a lot better image to start with. You're going to make a lot fewer mistakes, so that should greatly. Reduce the false alarm and greatly reduce the number of pat downs and also allow a better, more accurate capturing of a threat if it happens to be there. So that's one area we've invested, tremendously is in, better hardware for passenger screening. And we're looking not only at systems where you would go in and pause like you do in the current system. We're pushing the boundaries farther to look at systems that can either do a very rapid scan or possibly even scan a passenger in motion. So you wouldn't even have to stop. You could just continue to move, past a panel that would, determine if there was a threat or not. So that's an area we're making a huge amount of investment and not only on the hardware, the tech, the systems themselves, but also on, on the algorithms.
[00:13:12] John Verrico: Wouldn't that be great.
[00:13:13] John Fortune: Yeah, that'd be awesome. We ran a prize competition a few years back. Where we, opened up a competition to, folks to consider with a data set, can they deter, can they detect items or not detect items through, these, through the software that they would write and submit for the prize and the ones that perform the best would win prizes. And as a result, DHS was able to use those algorithms and to further develop them. So, we're actually to a point where we're about to be able to match up some of those computer algorithms with the new technology we've developed. And I think we think the outcome is going to be, a system that is much better in detecting threats and also avoiding the false alarms that lead to pat downs. So, I think the area, the passenger screenings space has been huge. we're also investing pretty heavily in the X-ray system space. So, looking at, potential systems that could rather than immediately if there's a challenge in, determining whether a threat's there or not, take a second look. Could you have a second system that would use a different way of scanning the bag to determine whether the item was initially determined to be a potential threat is a threat? And if it, of course, to still consider to be potential threat, then it would have to be searched. But if the secondary system were to say, oh, you know, there, there actually is not an issue here. this is a harmless item, then it would prevent that process of having to search through as many bags. So, those are a couple areas that we've had I think a lot of success in. And then there's our work on passenger self-screening, which is just getting started. We're super excited about that.
[00:14:33] John Verrico: This sounds really cool too, by the way. This passenger self-screening.
[00:14:38] John Fortune: Yeah. The idea is if you go to the local supermarket, this day and age, more likely or than not, you're going to check yourself out. You're going to have to go take your groceries and your items and put them up the scanner and scan them all and put your credit card in, pay and leave. So people are getting, fairly familiar with that process in many places, that’s really the only way of doing business anymore. so, we got this concept working with some of our colleagues at TSA. In the last three or four years, would it be great if we could do something similar, at least in certain cases for airport screening so that someone could come in, they could put their bags into a system, it could scan them, they could, maybe be scan by panels, so everything would take place at one time and, without having to have any, intervention from, a transportation security officer, they could get a green light and they could just move straight through and then the next person come in and everything would be self-paced. And, and ideally it would be miniaturized. So, you could have multiple of these kiosks, rather than having a single checkpoint at a given location. And there will also be some flexibility between how you configured this, depending on the size of the airport and how much space they had available. So, this is a concept that we kicked off about three years ago and we have several companies working on the problem right now. And we've got some test systems that are going to be coming off the line in early 2023, we're going to get to take a look at and do some, testing with. We're really excited about that.
[00:15:55] John Verrico: It's amazing that we're almost there. Wow.
[00:15:58] John Fortune: We're almost there at least to getting our first look right? the first step is to make one of the systems and to figure out, actually the first step is to figure out what a self-screening checkpoint might look like. Cause we really didn't know, I mean, we didn't really know what, we know what the basic functions have to be done. But how the different systems could be put together and how much space they would take and how long it would take for passenger and how this would be arranged. you know, within the footprint of a checkpoint. That was all things that, that we weren't really sure about. So, it was early in the project. We actually set that out to industry and said, hey, if you were to design a checkpoint for us, that was a self-screening concept, how would you build it? and so we got some concepts back or able to evaluate them and determine which ones we thought were most promising and then move forward with those. So, we're, we're pursuing two different, general concepts right now, and then we also. Some folks are developing, some of the pieces and parts of the system are going to be necessary to make it run for example, a miniaturized, computer tomography, CT bag screening; a small panel a single panel that could do the passenger screening; video analytics to help a person navigate the system and perhaps provide an assist if they're having difficulty in, in using the system successfully. or someone were to try to not follow their instructions. They were instructed to put all their, the belongings from their pockets in a basket, and they chose not to do so.
[00:17:19] John Verrico: So now I was just thinking about the self-checkout at the grocery store and all the problems people have, you know, with that process. And now putting it in something as complex as this.
[00:17:30] John Fortune: Yeah, and it's definitely not going to be a one size fits all. I mean, there’s, there may be situations where, you know, if you have the problem at the grocery store, you eventually hit the button and your light starts blinking and somebody comes over and helps you. I think it would be a very similar thing, in an airport. And you have Transportation Security Officers that are on standby, that are available to help folks that are having trouble with the system or maybe need a different screening pathway because, you know, the, that particular. Way of doing things doesn't work. Whether it's a large group, maybe it's, a huge family could be a number, of things, that could trigger that. So, there is, there would be points for help and intervention if someone's unable to go through, through that process. And really for any technology we develop, I think that always has to be in the back of our mind is that traveling public is very diverse. And so, you have business travelers that travel multiple times a week. You have large families that travel, you have people that are traveling for leisure. You have people that have physical challenges. You have, a lot of different cases that, that will break the mold. So, you have to think about that.
[00:18:26] John Verrico: Yeah, you know, you think about, like I said, in the grocery store, you've got the option to go to sell checkout, or there's still a standard checkout line.
[00:18:33] John Fortune: Yeah.
[00:18:34] John Verrico: And then you find more and more there's fewer and fewer of the actual legitimate, you know, full-service checkout lines. But I don't want to speak for TSA and their planned, CONOPS. But is it still the vision that there would still be traditional security checkpoint lines and there would be these optional self-screening, type of platforms?
[00:18:54] John Fortune: Yeah, I think the initial goal would be to roll this out in some pre-check type of checkpoints where you have folks that are, are more seasoned travelers and folks that have, that have that already, that expedited screening. folks are familiar with a certain type of per screening process that would probably be more likely to adapt quickly to the cell screening. And then depending how it, you know, works in that context, then there could be consideration going forward. But again, this is just an experimental system right now.
[00:19:21] John Verrico: That's amazing, and I know that you mentioned earlier, before that working with, with S&T's own transportation security lab. What kinds of work are we doing at that particular facility.
[00:19:31] John Fortune: Yeah, so we work closely with our transportation security laboratory largely to do. testing of some of the systems that we developed. We often build one system or maybe two as our first step when we're developing new technologies. And we'll have these prototypes we call them, that we can, send to TSL and they can, collect data on it. One of the first things we need to do if we have a passenger imaging system, is for, us to collect, images of mock passengers to get data so that we can, for example, develop new computer algorithms for the systems. So, one of the big things TSL does is they, whether it's a pasting system or a baggage imaging system, they'll collect, test images so that we can develop software to accompany the system and also just to test the overall performance of the system. You know, how often can, a new baggage screening system detect threats? You know, how likely is it to detect the threats? So, it needs to detect, and how often does it make a mistake? How often does it make a false alarm? So TSL can do all that kind of work, whether it's understanding the performance of the system or it's collecting, data on an experimental system so we can develop. Either develop, software algorithms to support the system or potentially go back and improve the system to a new version that they can do further testing on. And we've delivered quite a few, experimental, prototype systems to TSL over the last few years. We've done, a couple of different versions of the high-definition passenger screening system, both the stationary ones and we actually have a, an in motion panel screening system that's a TSL right now. So they have, I think, three different versions of systems that we've done on passenger screening. We also have a shoe scanner at TSL right now that we've developed.
[00:21:03] John Verrico: I was going to ask you about that shoe scanner next.
[00:21:05] John Fortune: Yeah, we're really excited about the shoe scanner because that's been a tough nut to crack over the last, you know, 10 to 15 years ever since people started having to remove their footwear, you know, 15, 20 years ago. It really is a challenge because, you know, people wear lots of different types of footwear and, and you have to have a system that's able to provide good images, and also be fast enough. Because if the passenger screening system itself can pass, scan a passenger in three seconds and it takes, you know, 40 seconds to scan the shoes, that isn't too much good. And some of that's been one of the big challenges is some of the shoe scanners in the past has been really slow. The shoe scanner that we've built really is using the same basic technology in the next generation passenger screening systems. We're taking a lot of the pieces of parts out of the system and just putting them in a slightly different design that's, intended to scan shoes instead of scan a person's, image. So, we have a couple of different, designs for shoe scanners right now, and the we're really excited about is one that could be fit into the passenger screening system so that, someone could come in and they could briefly pause the system and while the passenger is being cleared for threats, their shoes could be scanned at the same time. So, that's one possible use. but there are other possible uses too because the shoe scanner could be potentially placed at different points of the checkpoint, to carry out that function. That's something we are really excited about and it's up at the TSL right now, the Transportation Security Laboratory and they've done some initial testing and so far the results look really good, actually.
[00:22:23] John Verrico: You know, this whole thing is, like I said, it has the potential to really improve, the lifestyle for folks. So, I'm just going to ask you a couple of. Interesting questions about you, yourself, and you know, the joy that you get out of this. I've known you for a long time, John, and we've worked on a lot of really cool projects together over the years, but I have really seen some incredible enthusiasm, since you've taken on the Screening at Speed program and, what personally do you find so rewarding about this work?
[00:22:57] John Fortune: and I think there's an opportunity here to really have an impact. So yeah, I'm pretty passionate about that. I think that's exciting that, you know, in 5, 10 years, you know, I might be walking through the airport and I can think to myself, wow, you know, that's some work we did at S&T. That's, you know, affecting, you know, everybody that comes through here every day of the year.
[00:23:12] John Verrico: That's excellent. John, if there was something that you had to say that you wanted to sum up what your impact or the impact of this program is going to be to the world, what would you want people to know?
[00:23:23] John Fortune: You know, I think we, our human nature wants to do things better, you know, and we don't want to just say that, you know, we can just kind of keep doing what we're doing and get by and, think this is what's about, it's about, people, one of the great things that we can enjoy in our society and really. Probably have only been able to join in the last hundred years, this ability to travel all over the world, in a matter of, you know, a day or two at most. And it's a really great thing. and to make that process, safe and secure and simple and future thinking and, kind of keep up with the times I think is important. We don't want to just, we don't want to just do what we do to get by. we want to make everybody's lives easier. We want to keep up with, making sure that we're addressing any threats that come down the pike and make sure that, you know, we work with our, our airport partners as well to make sure that whole experience, whether it's security or, the whole process by which somebody goes through to, get on their plane and get to their destination, is as seamless as possible.
[00:24:16] John Verrico: That's great And John, before we wrap up, I did want to just get a little bit more of a flavor of your personality, for our listening, guests. So when you get on a plane, do you prefer the aisle, the window, or the middle seat?
[00:24:30] John Fortune: I prefer the window seat, but when I'm traveling with my family, I usually let my kids have it.
[00:24:35] John Verrico: Are you a pretzel or peanut guy?
[00:24:37] John Fortune: Do they even serve peanuts these days? I think they cut them off with all the allergies. Right?
[00:24:41] John Verrico: Some places still actually offer them.
[00:24:43] John Fortune: Do they really? I kind of like those Biscoff cookies. You know, the ones that come a couple of the packet? Aren't Those good.
[00:24:49] John Verrico: Those are good. Those are good. And if you were to win an airline ticket to anywhere in the world, where would you go?
[00:24:55] John Fortune: Ooh, that's tough. I've always wanted to go to New Zealand, so I'm going to go with New Zealand.
[00:24:59] John Verrico: [00:25:00] Oh, why New Zealand, what's the attraction there?
[00:25:02] John Fortune: Just it's far away. I've seen pictures, I've heard it's beautiful. I've had friends that have spent time there,
[00:25:07] John Verrico: It does look absolutely fascinating. Just, just the natural beauty of that country.
[00:25:12] John Fortune: And my daughter just started college and she's threatening to study abroad there, so who knows? Maybe I'll make it after all.
[00:25:16] Verrico: I'm excited to share with our listeners that this conversation is not over. Be sure to tune in in our next episode as Dr. Fortune's colleague Rob Klueg with the Transportation Security Laboratory explains how the lab supports the Screening at Speed program.
[00:25:33] This has been Technologically Speaking, the official podcast of the DHS Science and Technology Directorate. To learn more about S&T and find additional information about what you heard in this episode, visit us online at Scitech.dhs.gov and follow us on social media at DHS SCI TECH. Thanks for listening.