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TSA issues whole-body scanner contract to L-3

The US Transportation Security Administration yesterday issued a $165 million contract to purchase whole-body imagers for airport security checkpoints from L-3 Communications, five days after a Christmas day bomb scare on a Delta Air Lines A330 as it neared landing in Detroit.

The agency in October issued a similar contract valued at $173 million to L-3 competitor, Rapiscan, for its Secure 1000 single-pose whole-body imaging (WBI) system.

Along with missed cues in intelligence, US officials are also investigating whether WBI systems, which use technologies like backscatter X-ray, millimetre- or Terahertz-wave to expose potential threats under a passenger's clothing at an airport checkpoint, could have detected the pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN) and other components that were reportedly being carried in the underwear of a 23-year-old Nigerian man who later assembled the device onboard the aircraft in a bathroom and attempted to ignite the chemicals in his seat. Though the man's legs were burned, none of 277 other passengeres or the aircraft structure were damaged in the attempt.

Though a variety of explosives, including PETN, can be detected using portable explosives trace detection (ETD) machines available at most airports, the suspect charged in the attempted bombing was not selected for the special screening, which involves wiping luggage and other items with a cotton swab and analyzing the sample for traces of explosive material.

With a WBI system and its associated automated detection software, passenger screeners would obtain real-time data on threat items or equipment hidden under clothing. The technology in the past has been hampered by privacy concerns, though vendors have developed methods of addressing issues, including using black and white silhouettes in 3D images, blurring facial "and other" features and having security analysts in a remote location from the checkpoint to prevent them from seeing who they are screening.

L-3 reports that more than 200 of its ProVision millimetre-wave WBIs are being used worldwide, including more than 40 systems in test at 19 airports. Rapiscan, which also has systems in test at airports, uses X-ray backscatter as its core technology to detect threats. The bulk of passenger screening worldwide today continues to be handled by traditional metal detecting equipment, which is fast but does not reveal not-metallic threats.

Timing aside, yesterday's award capped a 20-month evaluation process that started with an open solicitation to imaging system vendors in April 2008. As part of the process, vendors were required to demonstrate that the systems could integrate into the airport checkpoint "with minimal impact on the current configuration", have a minimum throughput of 60 persons per hour (one per minute) and "support a 95th percentile male passenger in height". Two vendors have been cleared for a "qualified vendor list" to date by meeting all the requirements of the WBI system - L-3 and Rapiscan.

L-3 says the ProVision has a two-second multi-directional scan time and can process 300 - 600 passengers per hour (12 to 24 seconds per passenger), "depending on the application". Rapiscan says its scans are completed "within seconds".

TSA did not reveal how many systems it will purchase under the L-3 contract, and L-3 was not immediately available for comment.

The company's systems appear to have been selected for immediately installaion in at least one airport. In the wake of the Christmas attempted attack, Amsterdam's Schipol Airport, the origin of Delta Flight 253, stated yesterday that it would begin using millimeter-wave WBI systems within three weeks to screen passengers bound for the US.

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