Jun 14, 2021 - Technology

New airport screening tech: Shoes on!

Image of an airport traveler pausing to have their shoes scanned while still on their feet.

The PNNL-developed shoe scanner builds on millimeter wave technology used in passenger scanners deployed at airports to detect concealed weapons. (Photo by Andrea Starr | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)

The time is coming when you won't have to take your shoes off before passing through airport security.

Why it matters: Removing shoes at the TSA checkpoint is one of the most inconvenient rituals of flying in the U.S.

  • With newly developed shoe scanning technology — plus enhancements in existing body scanners — passengers will be able to get to their gates faster.

The improved screening tech was developed at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

  • PNNL developed the body scanning booths already in use for about 15 years at airports worldwide.
  • They came up with the shoe scanner while working on a high-definition body scanner that can better identify threats while cutting down on false alarms requiring secondary screening.
  • PNNL recently licensed both technologies to a security company called Liberty Defense Holdings. Liberty plans to install them in airports starting in about 18 months.

How it works: Passengers pause for about two seconds on a low platform, where electromagnetic waves generate an image of the bottom of their shoes.

  • That allows screeners to detect whether there's a hidden object that may constitute a threat.

Flashback: In December 2001, three months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Richard Reid attempted to detonate explosives hidden in his sneakers on an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami.

  • Passengers thwarted his plan, and the plane landed safely in Boston.
  • Since 2006, airlines passengers have been required to remove their shoes before passing through security unless they are cleared via TSA Pre-Check.

The bottom line: Adding the shoe scanner could speed up the screening process by 15 to 20 percent, according to Liberty CEO Bill Frain.

  • Eventually, the goal is to screen passengers without stopping as they pass through a tunnel toward the airport gate.
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