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TSA Installs RFID-enabled Screening System at Atlanta Airport to Cut Wait Times

The U.S. agency is piloting an automated system for screening carry-on bags and items that uses RFID-tagged bins, linking each bin's tag ID with photo and X-ray images of its contents.
By Claire Swedberg
May 27, 2016

The U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is testing an RFID-enabled solution at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, with the goal of speeding up the security screening process. The automated system, provided by MacDonald Humfrey, is installed at two of the 28 screening lanes that the TSA operates at the airport. A conveyor transports bins directly through the X-ray machines, then routes them to a separate section for further examination if necessary, while the system tracks the items loaded into each bin based on camera images and the bin's passive RFID tag.

Delta Airlines paid $1 million to help underwrite the pilot, which is taking place at the airport's South security checkpoint, used primarily by passengers flying on Delta flights. The pilot will be ongoing this summer, says Mark Howell, a TSA regional spokesperson. The TSA hopes the automated system will increase efficiency by 25 to 30 percent, though he says it will be difficult to pinpoint how much of the efficiency is boosted due to RFID, since that technology is just one element of the new solution.

As the bin approaches the entrance to the X-ray machine, an RFID reader captures the unique ID number encoded to the bin's tag, while a camera takes a photograph of its contents.
Airline security wait times have been growing for a variety of reasons, including a reduced TSA budget for staffing and the increased number of carry-on bags that passengers take with them when they board the aircraft. The Atlanta Airport has been recommending that passengers arrive three hours prior to a flight's scheduled departure, though wait times have currently been reported at 30 minutes or less. Similar problems have been reported at most U.S. airports.

TSA's Mark Howell
Seeking technology-based solutions, the TSA debuted the RFID-enabled experimental lines this week, mere days before Memorial Day—one of the busiest travel holidays of the year in the United States. The TSA expects Atlanta's airport to handle a record 90,000 passengers daily this holiday weekend. The goal, Howell explains, is to test the technology under the high pressure of a busy travel weekend.

First, upon reaching the front of the security line, a passenger can opt to proceed to one of two automated security lanes, each of which has five stations. At the station chosen, the passenger places all items to be screened in a single bin, which is larger than standard screening bins and is intended to hold all of that individual's belongings, including a carry-on bag. The passenger places the bin on the motorized conveyor, and then walks through the personal screening area.

Meanwhile, the bin containing that passenger's items is automatically moved to the X-ray machine, where an RFID reader mounted at the machine's entrance captures the unique ID number encoded to the bin's tag, while a camera simultaneously takes a photograph of the bin's contents. That image and the bin tag's RFID number are linked together.

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