NEXTT Airport innovation against all odds: Artificial Intelligence and airport security screening

Hannah Meredith by Hannah Meredith | May 28, 2021

In the past year, technological innovation in the aviation industry has seen more challenges than ever before.  Many airports have had to set these efforts and initiatives aside to focus on operational efficiency and safety.  And yet, innovation remains a critical component for airport success.  In this 3-part blog series I will be interviewing different aviation innovation leaders to look at some examples of challenges they have experienced when implementing innovative change and how they navigated their way to success despite many hurdles.  I will also get their thoughts on how these digital transformations have fared over the last year and how it can continue to propel airports further, especially as we recover from the effects of the pandemic.

In this second blog of our series, I will be interviewing Alexis Long from the Trade and Travel Accelerator for Pangiam.

Can you tell us about your current role and how long you have been with your company?

I am the Chief Executive Officer for the Trade and Travel Accelerator, a business arm of Pangiam run in partnership with DCode. Pangiam was started in November 2020 and was founded by senior US Homeland Security officials.  Our purpose at the accelerator is to bridge the gap between the tech world and the trade and travel industry.  Prior to now, I was the Chief Innovation Officer for the Department of Homeland Security at the TSA.  I also served as the Security Strategy and Cyber Director at Heathrow Airport.

Thinking back on all your various roles, can you give an example of an innovation project where you were faced with many obstacles to its success?

When I served as the Chief Innovation Officer for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), airports across the world began upgrading their cabin baggage security screening technology from x-ray to Computed Tomography (CT) scanning. This provides a unique opportunity to re-evaluate the way we deliver security.  We asked ourselves how we could use that opportunity to break open the market a bit. Aviation security is a difficult market to break into and we haven’t traditionally seen the numbers of new innovators entering this market as we would have liked.  As security practitioners, we often weren’t very forthcoming with sharing what our technology problems are or welcoming easy integration. Because of this it was difficult for new organizations to discover where to focus their energy or how to integrate their technology into a security checkpoint.  What our project focused on was how we could use this opportunity to fix this and welcome a new class of security providers to help us in our mission.  We started this project with renewed pace in 2018 as part of a public private partnership.

Tell us about the obstacles you faced with this project

We wanted to bring the world’s software power to the world of aviation screening. The goal was to understand how we could welcome sophisticated software experts to use their skills in helping the role of a security officer using powerful tools such as Artificial Intelligence or Machine Learning. In doing so,  that valuable security officer as a resource could focus on high level threats. Our ambition was to do this with the assistance of automated threat detection. One obstacle, or rather, opportunity, was the vehicle for how we deliver this. One of the critical things we needed to do was extract images that a third-party software developer could use to create algorithms for threat detection. Different hardware providers varied in how they stored images and how they felt images should be used. Similarly, airports and screening providers often had differing views on what they needed which complicated matters. Coordination to come to a common position was very challenging. As airports were starting to procure CT machines, we realized we had a great time-critical opportunity to come to a common position, so that we could go to our manufacturer partners collectively and say, “this is what we want.”

How did you overcome these obstacles to continue the project? Was the outcome of the project affected?

Credit to ACI-Europe, they acted as a convener for the world’s procurers and played a critical role in collating and creating a single open architecture standards document that the world’s airports could buy into. Heathrow, TSA, and Avinor led the charge in developing the technical material but we were delighted when the document gathered support from over 20 of the world’s largest procurers of screening technology from all corners of the world. We can now link to this standard so that anyone who is purchasing a CT screening kit can place this into their procurement documents. This is really important for airports who wish to future proof their checkpoints and work towards a world where plugging and playing with different software or hardware becomes much easier, whereas otherwise, your options are limited.

Tell us about innovation in the past year. How have challenges been met and overcome? 

Pangiam started during the pandemic, which was a brave decision to make.  One of the main projects I am involved in now is bringing open architecture to life. Alongside that, we have been working with the emerging tech world on wider aviation challenges. This year we are running tech accelerators in conjunction with ACI and Airpol – the European network of airport and border policing units. We hope to help emerging technology address airports’ greatest challenges.  What we found during COVID is that those challenges still exist and the thirst for emerging tech to help this sector remains strong. What has changed is the assessment of what is a good investment.  Pre-COVID we may have seen investments that saw second degree efficiency savings or revenue generation opportunities be perfectly good business decisions.  What we have seen is the timeframes for the impact of their investments has changed.  Airports want to see the value of their initiatives faster than before to see a tangible link between their action and the consequence on their business. Business cases still exist, money is still being spent on technology, however the funnel is getting much narrower around which ones will move forward.

Thinking about the future, what innovations or emerging technology excites you for our industry?

Number one is making the most out of open architecture – this will be big for this industry. Security is the largest cost center for many airports and opening the doors to new technologies is going to be really exciting. We have some big announcements coming on this shortly which have the potential to transform the sector. In second place, another concept that excites me is the value of data and how this can be better leveraged.  This is something that other sectors do incredibly well. Airports need to understand how to analyze and make use of the data they hold in creative ways to generate revenue for the airport or make passenger experiences better or more efficient. By data, I don’t mean personal data – I mean the data on movements, behaviours, patterns, and everything other than personal information.  The model of hoping that passengers generate enough money from the parking lot or from their purchases to pay for the investments of the airport is old fashioned and must change.  Data will be a key part of that change.

Thank you again for your time today. Any final words for our readers?

Don’t let perfection be the enemy of progress.  We should be better at helping emerging tech improve their product by partnering earlier on, rather than waiting for a solution to come to life that may never arrive.

The article was provided by a third party and, as such, the views expressed therein and/or presented are their own and may not represent or reflect the views of ACI, its management, Board, or members. Readers should not act on the basis of any information contained in the blog without referring to applicable laws and regulations and/or without appropriate professional advice.

Hannah Meredith

Hannah Meredith

Advisor, NEXTT
Hannah Meredith serves as an advisor for the New Experience Travel Technologies (NEXTT) Initiative, formed by ACI and IATA. Hannah is the Manager of Terminal Services for the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG) where she focuses on elevating the customer experience and increasing terminal operation efficiency. Before joining CVG, Hannah held roles in Airport Operations at Hartsfield Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) and Asheville Regional Airport (AVL). She holds a BS in Aerospace Management from Eastern Kentucky University.
5 articles
Share This