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Will Photonics Take Flight in Safety Devices?

Photonics Spectra
Dec 2001
Sally B. Patterson

Automated authorization systems for aircraft access, cabin-to-cockpit monitoring cameras, mandatory and voluntary passenger-identification systems, and baggage-screening and threat-detection devices are among the technologies recommended for exploration and development. A $20 million grant is already under way for innovative technology that will enhance flight deck security.

Aircraft surveillance

The document on aircraft security recommends the installation of cameras and lighting for monitoring the area immediately outside the flight deck and, perhaps, the whole cabin, and asks for research to determine the best methods. Adding another monitor to the already limited space in the cockpit would be a challenge.

Toshi Hori, president and CEO of Pulnix America Inc. in Sunnyvale, Calif., said that it is certainly feasible -- e.g., a small-case monitor similar to a head-up display in a jet fighter -- but he suggested that airlines might not be willing to foot the bill. He said that air-to-ground transmission might be preferable -- especially as it would ensure a record in the event of a lost plane -- but that it, too, would be costly.

Qualcomm Wireless Systems has recently launched the MDSS Globalstar communications system that could facilitate remote control and monitoring of aircraft cameras, and the company is seeking Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification. Thales, a company that installs cabin monitors for airlines, has reported significantly more inquiries in recent weeks.

Unless the FAA mandates such devices, though, Hori doesn't foresee widespread adoption of many of the photonics-based recommendations. "The airlines are cautious, and they are losing money," he said. "The gearing up of the military campaign will influence photonics more."

The document on airport safety proposes exploration of technologies for positive identification of passengers and airport personnel, as well as more effective passenger and baggage screening.

Smarter devices

David Schatz, an executive vice president at Cognex Corp. in Natick, Mass., said that government and private entities have expressed interest in cross-fertilization of surveillance equipment with machine vision, "to incorporate some intelligence into those devices." The more cameras there are, the more images there will be.

"It is unrealistic to think that automated vision analysis can eliminate the security guard," he said, but it can be used "to make humans more effective and productive."

Ronn Rohe, a spokesman for Cohu Inc. in San Diego, said that his company has seen much greater interest in surveillance cameras, as well as in OEM capabilities for specialized imaging applications. Biometrics could be a growth area. "Facial recognition software is a hot topic," he said, but he acknowledged that there are attendant privacy issues.

Another recommendation is for voluntary passenger screening, which could involve "smart" credentials such as polycarbonate optical memory cards.

The document proposes that the FAA establish an Aviation Security Technology Consortium to identify and advance airport security solutions, and suggests that the US Department of Defense conduct "an accelerated review of classified technologies with potential application to aviation security," with an eye to mainstreaming some of them.

FAA spokesman Paul Takemoto said that it is premature to discuss which companies would be included in this consortium, and he would not comment on what classified technologies might be under discussion. However, he said that since Sept. 11, the office has received more than 23,000 suggestions and proposals for airline safety devices and practices. None has yet been certified, but some technologies are already being implemented, such as face recognition at Boston's Logan Airport. "Airlines can do things above and beyond what we require," Takemoto said. He declined to speculate on whether the transportation department would seek to make its recommendations mandatory, and he said that no time frame has been established for putting any of the security measures into place.

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