Most passengers say that the worst part of the airport experience is the security checkpoint, in which travellers are temporarily transformed from valued customers to suspected international terrorists.
Only when passengers have divested their outer layers of clothing, separated laptops and liquids from their cabin baggage and possibly been ordered to remove their shoes are they allowed to proceed to their flights.
But within a couple of years, travellers could simply walk through a short corridor, with coats on and car keys and phones in pockets, being screened by ultra-low temperature sensors.
Meanwhile their bags will go through the usual X-ray machine – but the staff watching the screens will have been taught not what to look for, but what to ignore.
The technology for “walk-through security scanning” developed by Cardiff University is derived from astronomy detection. It uses infra-red cameras that are so sensitive they could “see” a 100-watt lightbulb from half-a-million miles away.
In an airport context, hidden cameras using one-millimetre wavelength technology are installed to examine passengers from a range of angles. Their sensitivity requires temperatures just one-quarter of a degree above absolute zero: 273 degrees below freezing.
For such cameras, the radiation emitted by the human body acts as a kind of lightbulb, due to it being warmer than the surroundings. The image projects through clothing and reveals significant items carried by the passenger.
Ken Wood, the sales director of the start-up firm Sequestim, told The Independent: “With our new technology, airport security screening will be a walk-through experience.
“Our new camera will be able to look at them, in real time as they simply walk past, and will be able to ignore all their personal items. But if you’ve got a gun or a knife hidden about you, you’d better watch out.”
The company claims that the throughput of a typical security channel at an airport could increase from 150 passengers per hour to 1,000. Equipment could be deployed at airports by 2021.
Unobtrusive but effective security screening has been the dream of airports and airlines for eight years, since the International Air Transport Association (IATA) revealed its vision of the “checkpoint of the future”.
Aviation security adds to the cost of tickets, reduces the amount of space available for airport retail and deters some passengers from flying at all.
IATA has long called for a move “from a system that looks for bad objects, to one that can find bad people”.The aim is to enhance security while reducing queues (themselves a potential terrrorist target) and the frequency of intrusive searches at airports.
The standard airport search system is based on metal detectors and X-ray machines. The checkpoint set-up dates from the early 1970s, when aviation security first became routine.
Since then, technology has become more sophisticated but procedures have not changed; they have simply become more complex as additional threats, such as blades and liquid explosives, have emerged.
In February 2019 the Department for Transport announced that seed capital totalling £1.8m would be invested in eight projects, from a mix of universities and business, in an initiative called Future Aviation Security Solutions.
The aviation minister, Baroness Sugg, said: “These innovative projects will ensure we continue to provide a safe and smooth travel experience for air passengers.
“We have a proud history of early adoption and use of cutting-edge technology and this programme will help ensure we continue to lead the way in airport security.”
In another project, a University of Cambridge team has revealed that staff looking at X-ray images of passengers’ baggage can identify potential threats more readily when they are trained to ignore common items in luggage.
Dr Greg Davis from the university’s Department of Psychology said: “Most serious threats have an ultra-low prevalence.”
With rare threats, such as guns and knives, he said screeners make fewer mistakes when they know what not to look for.
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies