Confronting the terrorist threat
Over recent years, air travelers have become familiar with pre-flight security routines: a tedious but necessary insurance against terrorist attacks. But other forms of mass transport, especially in European cities, may remain more vulnerable – as the bombings in London and Madrid tragically demonstrated a few years ago. An EU-funded project has been exploring new, rapid, mass-screening technology to make life easier and safer for all travelers.
Terrorism is today one of the biggest physical threats to Europeans, and governments fight an ongoing battle to protect their citizens and keep ahead of would-be attackers.
While airport security is tight across Europe, mass transportation systems and hubs, such as train and metro networks and stations, sometimes present an even tougher challenge. Current security systems might be too slow and too costly to deal with thousands of people passing through every day. How can safety be combined, at a reasonable price, with the speed, ease of access and privacy that the public expects and economies need?
Researchers at the EU-funded IMAGINE project believe they have a solution. They have developed the main camera components necessary for a low-cost, rapid, walk-by screening system, which would allow passengers at airports and other transport hubs to travel without additional delays, while offering better security at mass gatherings such as sporting events and concerts. A demonstrator of the project’s innovative millimetre wave imager components has been built and tested.
When eventually developed further for the market, IMAGINE’s components would be a cheaper, more efficient and faster alternative to current technology, says project coordinator Francisco Pérez-Villacastín.
Millimetre wave imaging is the lead technology for security screening. But because the components currently have to be assembled and tuned by hand, they are expensive.
IMAGINE’s technology could eventually cut the price of the components to EUR 150, slashing overall production costs by some 52 %, says Pérez-Villacastín.
The team believes the components developed by the project will help tighten existing security measures, along with boosting efficiency, speed and privacy, while lowering costs, avoiding health risks and improving travellers’ experience.
But before these aims can be achieved, the project’s components need to be assembled as a commercial product and tested further.
IMAGINE’s partners are now looking for additional funding, for commercial launch by 2016 or 2017, affirms Pérez-Villacastín.
“This technology can potentially be used anywhere where there is currently a metal detector,” he adds.
This includes airports, ports, government buildings, museums, football matches and rock concerts.
“The reduction in pixel price makes it more accessible to the less specialist, lower security-level market,” he says. “As more people become aware of the safety benefits, demand will increase still further. It can also be used in train and bus stations, in this case more as a surveillance tool than security screening.”
Radiation-free and non-intrusive, the system does not show or save any anatomical details, so there are no health or privacy issues to deal with, he adds.
“This technology has the potential to save hundreds of lives both through deterring terrorists and through detecting them,” believes Pérez Villacastín.
And it could also place Europe at the forefront of the growing imaging market, which, according to him, is now worth EUR 100 million and is expected to grow by 300 % over the next five years.
“EU support was essential in bringing the specialist consortium partners together to work towards a common goal,” points out the project coordinator. “The high development costs of the core technology made it prohibitive for any SME to undertake. The EU has helped to establish a European source for the semiconductor parts required in mm-wave applications, ensuring EU companies’ access to price-competitive parts.”