Duke University research could improve X-ray screening at airports

Scripps Howard Foundation WireJuly 24, 2013 

— Two Duke University professors might be radically changing for the better how Americans get through airport security.

At a briefing Tuesday at the Capitol, David Brady, a professor of photonics, and Stephen Mitroff, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience, explained advances in their research of X-ray technology and the behavioral science of Transportation Security Administration screeners.

Airport X-rays now display the outlines of items in travelers’ bags based on the object’s density.

But Brady has been developing a new system that identifies the molecular structure of items passengers carry onboard.

“Now, rather than just saying something is metal or non-metal,” Brady said, “we have tungsten and lead, and we can identify, specifically, all of those different materials.”

The idea, he said, is to make machines sensitive to specific materials based on specific threats.

That means passengers who long for the days of carrying their own shampoo, toothpaste and mouthwash in containers of more than 3 ounces without creating a national incident may get their chance.

These new X-rays have implications in the medical field, Brady said. His new system emits rays that are more focused.

“The trade-off with medical screening is always a balance between how much cancer you cause with an X-ray screening versus how much you detect,” Brady said “And so by reducing dosage you make it easier to do X-ray screening.”

Gamers do well in TSA

Mitroff’s research has focused on airport security workers.

He examined what kinds of environments are best for TSA screeners (low-stress environments, away from the passengers), whether TSA screeners are better than the average person at detecting threats (they are) and what kind of people make the best TSA screeners (they’re still working on that).

One thing Mitroff’s research has found: Gamers are more adept than most.

“What you find in a variety of different settings relating to visual search,” Mitroff said, “is that people who play action video games frequently are quicker to perform a visual search task like this, but with no cost to their accuracy.”

A shock, but no surprise

Another test involved putting screeners under threat of random electric shock to test how stress levels (like a noisy airport) could affect their effectiveness.

Not surprisingly, it reduced effectiveness.

Brady hopes to see his X-ray technology in airports in 18 months to two years.

But the budget sequestration has hurt research like theirs by reducing the number of researchers. “Even those who don’t want to leave, they have to leave, because no one has money to pay them,” Mitroff said.

Speaking at the briefing sponsored by Duke University, U.S. Rep. David Price, a Chapel Hill Democrat and the ranking member of the House appropriations subcommittee on homeland security, praised the research.

“This next wave of airport security technology will, no doubt, provide security officials with a more precise way for officials to determine the contents of a bag or what a person has on his body,” he said

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