This new technology makes going through airport security a breeze.
What do national security, fitness and health and perfect-fit jeans have in common? Technology
developed at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) in Richland, Washington.
In the 1990s, technology created at PNNL for airport security and sponsored by the Federal
Aviation Administration (FAA) focused on millimeter wave holographic screening technology for
national security applications to detect concealed metallic and nonmetallic objects. Since then, it’s
been deployed domestically and internationally for airport and other security applications, and spun
out for unusual uses such as measuring one’s body for
custom-fit clothing and, under negotiation, health and
In its current form, the space-age, phone booth–
looking technology incorporates two “wands” that
rotate around a person in 1.5 seconds, bouncing harmless millimeter waves off the water in the
body and any objects concealed on it. The information from the scan is sent to a computer that
produces a 3-D image, revealing any concealed objects.
“It’s important because terrorists are smart; September 11 profoundly demonstrated that fact,”
said Douglas L. McMakin, staff engineer, National Security Directorate, PNNL, and a primary
researcher on the technology.
The technology can detect things that current airport security technologies cannot. It’s also fast
and eliminates the need for physical contact between screener and passenger. The technology
provides a new level of safety and security to public arenas, such as airports and subway terminals,
and from potential terrorists.
“Millimeter waves readily penetrate clothing barriers and reflect off objects in or under the clothing,”
said McMakin. “Our patented holographic imaging software uses the reflected waves to form highresolution
imagery of the concealed threats.”
The scanner uses a millimeter wave array/transceiver technology that “illuminates” the body with
extremely low-powered millimeter waves—a class of nonionizing radiation not harmful to humans.
More than 200,000 reflected signals are collected and sent to a high-speed image-processing computer
where they form a high-resolution 3-D image of the body that is accurate to within one-quarter of an
inch. The resulting image allows system operators to see objects worn in or under clothing—even
nonmetallic objects. “This is just one advantage of the system,” McMakin said.
Other advantages include its scanning speed (about 1.5 seconds to scan and several more seconds
for the operator to screen for threats) and the fact that it does not require person-to-person contact.
For security applications, the patented technology was licensed in 2003 to SafeView Inc., a start-up
company later acquired by L-3 Communications Corp., to be commercialized for noninvasive security
“portals.” Its commercial version of the technology, SafeScout, has been used at border crossings in
Israel, international airports in Mexico City and Amsterdam, ferry landings in Singapore and railway
stations in the United Kingdom. It also was used in the courthouse during Saddam Hussein’s trial and
has been deployed in the Green Zone in Baghdad, Iraq, to detect hidden explosives.
In 2006, L-3 Communications Corp. began selling
its commercial version (called ProVision) to the U.S.
Transportation Security Administration (TSA) for use in airport
screening. By the end of 2008, ProVision systems were
installed in 21 U.S. airports. TSA plans to purchase and
install 80 more units in U.S. airports in 2009.
In October 2007, passengers at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport were the first to test the
new high-tech security screener. In April 2008, the machines were rolled out at John F. Kennedy
International Airport and Los Angeles International Airport. TSA reports positive feedback from
passengers about the speed and ease of the technology.
In developing the machines, PNNL researchers also discovered that the technology had consumer
applications. In the apparel industry, for example, companies can use it to help consumers select the
perfect style and size of jeans and slacks—even wedding dresses—by collecting extremely accurate
body measurements for custom-fit clothing.
“The next application we’re seeking is in the fitness/health industry,” said McMakin. “Because the
technology can accurately measure a body, we’re finding that diet centers, gyms and doctors’ offices could
use the technology to measure every part of a person’s body and determine weight and body mass index.”