Millimeter wave imaging reads the electromagnetic signature of plastic or metal-even if they're hidden in clothing or luggage.
Newton, MA—Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, transportation officials have been struggling to improve airport security. But even with better staffing and more checkpoints in place, modern metal detectors still can't detect non-metallic weapons or explosives.
As reported in Design News in its September 4, 2000 issue, one alternative is the use of high-frequency radio waves called millimeter waves. All objects—including metals and plastics—give off a distinct electromagnetic signature in this spectrum. Millimeter-wave imaging systems read objects at the differing wavelengths and provide a decisive picture of what, if any, metal and plastic weapons are concealed beneath clothing or in suitcases.
But will the FAA buy it? "We have a task force in place looking at everything," says Rebecca Trexler, a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) public affairs specialist commenting on the possible use of millimeter-wave detection systems.
Developers have also swung into action. "We are continuing development of the millimeter wave security scanner and have responded to a request from the FAA for proposals," says Doug McMakin, a staff engineer at Pacific Northwest National Lab. "We hope to know by early winter if we will receive additional development funds."
At press time, the FAA had a rule pending expected to give it direct oversight of screening companies and imposing new rigorous standards for training and testing security staff. The rule also requires the use of new software deployed by the FAA to monitor how well each screener is doing at detecting dangerous objects. Under the new rule, companies whose screeners fail to meet detection standards can lose their FAA certification to perform security at the airports.
On Sept. 16, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta announced the creation of two separate task forces to deliver specific recommendations for improving security within the national aviation system. One task force will focus on increasing security at the nation's airports. The other will look at aircraft safety.