Heightened efforts to improve airport safety have hurried the pace of research in the Tri-Cities to develop a cutting-edge scanner that can identify any object worn under a person's clothing.
The Federal Aviation Administration has spent $7.5 million over more than 10 years on the scanner research at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratories in Richland.
A team of eight researchers there has developed a sophisticated airport scanner that detects non-metal objects as well as items under clothing.
The FAA is facing intense pressure to improve airport security after last week's hijacking of four airliners by terrorists.
FAA officials say they're reviewing a number of different technologies, including the one being developed in Richland.
That system would cost about $100,000 per airport to install and could be deployed in two to three years, say FAA officials.
Officially, however, the FAA is saying only that it is still reviewing the PNNL system -- termed the 3-D Holo-Body Scanner.
Its advantages over the existing airport systems are clear, said Doug McKakin, the project manager in Richland.
Current airport gateway systems rely on metal detectors and a separate X-ray device to inspect carry-on items.
The 3-D scanner uses low-energy microwave energy to spot not just guns but knives made from plastic, ceramic or carbon fiber.
It would also identify liquid explosives, another area of safety concern identified by anti-terrorist experts.
While the research has continued for more than a decade, FAA officials still say they're not sure the 3-D scanner is the ideal solution for its security needs.
In particular, officials are concerned over the extremely detailed images the system gives of each person's anatomy under clothing.
"It's a privacy issue," said Greg Koller, a spokesman for the lab, operated by Battelle and funded largely by the Department of Energy.
"It's too revealing," said Douglas McMakin, the head researcher on the scanner project. Since the human body is highly reflective to microwave radiation, the system easily captures detailed images of a person's anatomy.
The scanner can capture a 360-degree image of a person's body within 10 seconds. The bodily detail is probably more than most travelers would feel comfortable with, said an FAA official.
Over the past few years, the FAA has asked McMakin and others to devise ways that blur the image so the scanner finds the weapons but blurs the anatomy.
McMakin and his colleagues are developing software that will develop that bodypart blurring, he said in an interview this week.
Since the attacks last week on the Pentagon, the World Trade Center and an airliner over Pennsylvania, FAA representatives in Washington have spent several hours speaking by phone with McMakin and others about the scanner project.
FAA spokesmen would not say whether the government will now accelerate the 3-D scanner project with or without the anatomy-blurring option.
An FAA spokesman said it's not the agency's policy to make statements about pending airport research projects.
Another FAA official, who wanted to remain anonymous, said too much publicity about the project's future use could jeopardize McMakin and others in Richland.
"One has to be sensitive right now; saying very little is probably the best approach," said the FAA official.
McMakin said, "The FAA is looking at this as one tool. We're just one technology they're looking at, covering the whole area of airport security."
Among the factors that the FAA has to weigh are the expense of deploying the system and training operators. It would certainly cost more than existing airport systems.
FAA spokesman Allen Kenitzer at the agency's Seattle office added, "Most of the technologies we're looking at are on the table. We'll take all necessary measures needed to upgrade airport security."
PNNL researchers have also looked at other commercial applications for the system.
It has possible uses in the clothing industry, said Koller. People would be scanned as a high-tech alternative to a tailor tape-measuring neck, arms and leg dimensions.