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As airports search for ways to make the travel experience safer and more convenient, biometrics may just be the answer, writes Tony Chapman.

You enter the airport and walk up to the self-service baggage kiosk where your passport is scanned. Then, a facial recognition camera scans your face and compares it to the biometric data on your passport and your travel documents – your identity is confirmed and you deposit your bag.

You head to security where, once again, your face is used to confirm you are who you say you are, and you’re passed through.

At the gate and even at the destination airport, you move through the airport quickly and easily, while the airport maintains the utmost security.

On this imaginary journey, you’ve just used a biometric-based screening process. Your face (it could just as easily be your fingerprint, iris, earlobe, etc) has become your biometric token, eliminating the documents – think passport and driver’s license – traditionally used to verify your identity.

While the nirvana described is not here today, the use of biometrics to improve security, as well as the passenger experience, is gaining ground at airports around the world – and for good reason.

The benefits of biometrics

Globally, there are a number of airports/airlines, including well-known trials at Heathrow’s Terminal 5, Delta Air Lines, JetBlue Airways and more, that are conducting biometric trials, and security is one of the key reasons.

Thanks to our smartphones (which commonly use fingerprints – and now facial scans – to unlock our device) as well as other applications, biometrics have become commonplace.

With consumers now increasingly comfortable with the basic concept, biometric identification has rapidly expanded to other uses and areas.

Using biometrics today as part of the airport screening process provides the opportunity to,  at the very least, be as good as (but more likely better than) current manual screening processes. Why? Biometrics provide more consistent results because after 8 or 80 hours the technology does not suffer from fatigue (the way a person might) and will screen exactly the same way.

Additionally, new technological innovations and standards are becoming more commonplace at airports – and are providing increasingly accurate results.

The accuracy of the cameras used, the processing power of the equipment as well as the methodology and algorithms are all improving.

Technologies that measure the distances between facial features, for example, can capture data that is verified by cameras located at strategic points within the airport and linked to airport computer systems that hold travel documentation.

The use of infrared cameras, which are less prone to errors, is increasing. With these cameras, the images produced are consistent regardless of ambient lighting, which, with windows everywhere, is a common problem at airports.

And those infrared cameras now have a much higher flash rate so they can take many more frames per second – meaning they have the chance to get a much better quality image of the face.

And there’s more. Companies like Rockwell Collins are already working to incorporate Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies to improve the process even further.

For example, rather than trying to map a face into a series of geometric points, it is using artificial intelligence to recognise a face and say it’s the same face based on a self-learning AI algorithm.

Regardless of the technology, the move towards biometrics can enhance security in other ways. Redeploying security personnel to deal with the ‘exception’ versus the ‘normal’ could make the entire process faster and more secure.

Security officers, for instance, could be focused on looking for cues that may indicate a concern (someone sweating profusely or acting anxious) that a person would notice, but that a computer taking an iris scan, wouldn’t. The result: additional screening measures could be applied when warranted.

Beyond security, biometrics has the opportunity to remake the passenger experience. As passengers embrace self-service technologies, biometrics enables a much faster and more pleasant trip through the airport.

Again, Rockwell Collins is creating self-service solutions that integrate biometric authentication into each phase of passenger processing, so everything from check-in through boarding the airplane can be securely automated.

Challenges exist

Implementing biometric programmes at the airports globally has its challenges. As you might imagine, identity documents around the world lack standardisation.

European passports, for example, contain a digital file for each person’s image, while US drivers licences do not.

Next, the actual biometric used can vary. Facial recognition is quite common but cannot be used in some cultures. A woman wearing a burka is probably the most visible example of this today. It also requires passengers to look at the camera, which may not be feasible in some instances (a disabled person, a small child). Other modalities, like fingerprints or iris scans, are being used, but also have limitations.

There are also concerns surrounding privacy laws regarding biometrics data sharing, which differ from country to country.

And while passengers currently have a choice and can opt out, in the future such programmes could become mandatory.

Lights, camera….biometrics

Even with the existing challenges, using biometrics at airports looks promising. The benefits already being realised from current trials all but guarantee a continued expansion of the technology.

Ultimately, biometrics are giving airports a way to maintain rigorous security levels and improve the passenger flow/experience. So, while the nirvana initially described is not here yet, it may be very soon.

About the author

Tony Chapman is a senior director of product management and strategic programmes for Rockwell Collins, a leading provider of airport solutions globally.


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