You are here

Science and Technology Snapshot: Bringing 21st Century Biometric Solutions to Our Nation’s Airports

Snapshot: Bringing 21st Century Biometric Solutions to Our Nation’s Airports

Release Date: 
November 30, 2017

World events over the last decade—and even in the last year—have shown that airports are an attractive target to terrorists. At the same time, the number of international air travelers is increasing. More than 119 million international travelers arrived in fiscal year (FY) 2016, an almost six percent increase from FY 2015 and over a 35 percent increase since FY 2009. It is estimated that international arrivals will continue to grow at more than four percent annually. In this changing security landscape, finding effective and scalable solutions to increase security and efficiently process travelers is imperative. The need is critical and will only grow as many airports are already operating at or near capacity.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) is helping U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) find new technologies and advanced processes to meet its mission to protect the U.S. homeland. S&T provides support by evaluating biometric collection technologies, algorithm evaluations, and conducting experiments to identify processes and technology to accurately and efficiently track the entry and exit of traveling persons. S&T is at the leading edge of helping to solve complex mission challenges by finding new and innovative technology to improve operations.

In fact, JetBlue and other airlines are currently piloting programs at U.S. airports to replace boarding passes with biometric technologies. Some of CBP’s technology selections and planning for these pilots were based directly on S&T assessments.  

S&T conducted assessments at its Maryland Test Facility as part of its Apex Air Entry/Exit Re-Engineering program (known as AEER), which develops, tests, analyzes and assesses technology solutions. Now that CBP is moving into operational projects, portions of the Apex AEER program are moving into the Homeland Security Research Projects Agency (HSARPA) Port of Entry – People Screening program (POE-PS). 

Specifically, the program aims to help CBP innovate international air entry/exit operations by:

  • More effectively using new processes and technologies to inspect growing numbers of travelers with limited airport space and staff
  • Improving technologies to quickly and easily verify the identity of international travelers during entry/exit
  • Making the entire entry/exit process more secure, seamless, intuitive and traveler-friendly

Before this pilot could become a reality, POE-PS needed to understand the U.S. airport system.

“Unlike some other countries, U.S. airports were designed only for inspection of international arriving travelers not for biometric checks for outbound foreign nations,” said POE-PS Program Manager Arun Vemury. “Additionally, most airports are already at capacity and don’t have the space to build-out or expand existing inspection areas. Putting in the wrong solution could not only create longer queues and take more space, but also delay flights and displace airport seating areas and retail operations which keep the airports in business.”

With no standardized airport layout or central management organization, this task becomes even more complicated, as each airport would require an individually tailored solution. Add in the ever-present issues with limited funding, and a restructure program may appear nearly impossible.

However, S&T was built for just this type of mission.

One of the most promising ways to integrate biometric immigration checks into airport operations was to identify technologies and new operational processes that minimize floor space, infrastructure, staffing and delays.

Although the base biometric technologies are not new, they have evolved significantly in the last several years. The three most widely used applications of biometrics are:

  • Fingerprint recognition
  • Face recognition
  • Iris recognition

Biometric systems securely record, digitize and store the unique physical characteristics that each of us possess. Using biometrics for identity verification when entering and leaving the country, for example, allows officers to quickly compare a traveler’s physical characteristics to the original data. Although driven by complex computer algorithms, the systems empower officers to recognize – at a much quicker pace – people attempting to travel under a different name and/or who pose a threat.

The use of these technologies require a significant amount of testing to ensure they can be integrated into the security approach for CBP. While a technology may work perfectly, it may not be suited for use in every setting.

To better understand evolving technologies and explore innovative solutions, S&T uses its Maryland Test Facility (MdTF). Located just outside of Washington, D.C., the MdTF has been instrumental in testing and evaluating the technology and processes to optimize entry/exit from U.S. airports.

“The real-world testing simulations have given S&T and CBP the ability to accurately evaluate multiple technologies and processes without negatively impacting the travelling public or putting anyone at risk,” said Vemury. “The use of the facility also helps keep costs down since we can test more things more quickly without delaying any travelers.”

More that 150 different commercial and government technologies and processes have been reviewed and tested under various conditions and configurations..

Approximately 2,500 volunteers (representing a multitude of ethnicities and cultures) assisted by playing the roles of travelers. This allowed S&T and CBP to test and evaluate biometric systems and other processes in real-world airport scenarios.

The testing S&T directed at the MdTF has resulted in tangible and actionable results.

During the assessments, S&T focused on both technology and the procedures, studying, developing, testing and analyzing findings to determine the validity of the manufacturer’s claims as well as how something works within the overall system. S&T then disseminated recommendations to CBP for consideration and potential future deployment at airports. 

Through this exhaustive process, S&T captured and analyzed important user-experience data.

The results of these evaluations have informed the next generation of technologies and how best to use that technology with future travelers.  

“CBP’s partnership with DHS S&T has informed many aspects of our biometric entry/exit transformation efforts,” said Colleen Manaher, Executive Director, Policy, Program Analysis, and Evaluation, Office of Field Operations, CBP. “We are grateful for our strong relationship with DHS S&T and look forward to continuing our combined efforts.”

Based upon the work that S&T is doing with its partners, the future of international travel to the U.S. looks even safer, more secure and surprisingly efficient.

Back to Top