Small Montana Airport Takes Big Security Role
Small Montana Airport Takes Big Security Role

Apr 1, 2004 12:00 PM
By Jacqueline Emigh

Big airports such as London's Heathrow and Boston's Logan are not the only ones testing new physical security systems these days. Nearly a year ago, a much smaller airport in Helena, Mont., and several private sector partners launched a federally funded pilot for a wireless, biometrically enabled access control and monitoring system. The Helena Regional Airport Authority (HRAA) now hopes that its system will be seen as a model for airports of all sizes throughout the U.S.

The authority and its partners are about 90 percent done with the first phase of the project and about three months into phase two, says Airport Authority Director Ron Mercer. In the first stage, the collaborators are testing an access control system for airport gates which combines RFID and fingerprint reading technologies.

In the more ambitious second stage, the contactless access control system from Gateway Controls is being integrated with intelligent software, wireless sensors, and cameras, for remote monitoring of secure areas throughout the airport, complete with wireless alerts to the airport's human guards. Still to come is a third stage, which will add protection of airport doors.

Funded mainly through a $1.7 million grant from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the system carries the long name of Distributed Ad Hoc Intelligent Sensor-Intrusion Detection System (DAIS-IDS).

So why did the small airport in Montana apply for the TSA grant, anyway? "Right after Sept. 11, we were told that we had to station guards at all the gates. The only problem was that we had 24 gates, but only 16 people," Mercer recalls.

At first, the airport handled the extra gate coverage through a combination of traditional lock-and-key and wireless gate openers, somewhat similar to the garage door openers common in suburban neighborhoods.

"We needed to find a better way," Mercer notes. So when he heard the TSA was disbursing pilot grants to airports around the nation, he applied. The Helena airport is a Category 4 airport, meaning it's quite small. "But even small airports have lots of gates," says the airport administrator.

G5 Partners is heading up the project as prime integrator. Other participants include Sarnoff Corp., creators of the "intelligent network" the system is based on; VistaScape, which is producing the video software; and four Montana-based companies and organizations. The National Science Foundation's Partnership for Innovation is providing financial support.

For the biometric component, the partners decided to go with fingerprint readers rather than iris recognition. "Every airport these days is trying to cut down on costs. For iris recognition, you need a special camera. In comparison, fingerprint reading is cheap and easy," says Rod Angle of Sarnoff.

Exploiting new wireless technologies, instead of totally rewiring airport facilities, is another money saver, Mercer points out. Moreover, the wireless network can easily stretch into every nook and cranny of the airport, including the runways, if needed.

For phase two of the Helena project, Sarnoff is producing software for the DAIS-IDS system based on its own MANET product. The intelligent software provides the wireless networking infrastructure for communications among the sensors, PCs, and PalmPilot-style PDAs that will be deployed at the Helena airport.

Angle contends that the network software is flexible, capable of scaling up or down in size as sensors are added or removed from the network. It is also designed to be "self-healing," so that it will require little attention from human systems administrators.

The DAIS-IDS software supports PCs and a variety of mobile devices, in addition to wireless networking protocols with various properties and characteristics. "You can use the 802.11 or Bluetooth wireless protocol, for instance," Angle says.

The sensors, which are equipped with built-in memory, can handle plug-in functions that include wireless communications, sonar, radar, and camera input, for example. Also known as "intelligent nodes," the sensors are about 3 to 4 inches wide, and twice as long.

"The sensors look sort of like soup cans," Angle says. "You can attach them just about anywhere."

The University of Montana's RAVE Technical Development Center is working with the partners on additional software for the system, which is aimed at analyzing data from the sensors and sending out alerts to guards. "If I'm in an area that I'm not supposed to be in, the system will draw a red ring around me," Mercer says.

The data analysis software uses a red/yellow/green color coding system, explains G5 CEO Bill Adams. "Essentially, red means, 'It is not okay for this person to be here.' Green means 'We know who this is, and it's okay for him to be here.' Yellow means, 'We think we know who this is, and it might be okay for him to be here.'"

This system is designed to be self-learning, too. "For example, it might learn that it's all right for a vehicle to be in an area, but it's not all right for a deer to be there," says Mercer.

A goal for the data analysis software is to make sure that actual threats do not slip through the cracks, without confusing human guards with false alerts. "The software can look at intelligent nodes all over the airport, so that human guards don't need to spend so much time viewing monitors in the control center. But we don't want to bombard the guards with 500 different alerts. We're going to try letting the software make some of these decisions," Angle says.

Adams acknowledges, however, that decisions of this kind can be complex, since people in different job categories such as baggage handlers, message handlers,and caterers have different access rights to various secure areas.

"We're also looking for exceptions from the usual. For instance, a certain type of employee might have access to a specific area but it might be unusual for him to be present in the area at this particular time," Adams says.

In mid-March, the TSA gave the go-ahead to add motion cameras and GIS software to the mix, "So we'll be using both still and video cameras," Adams says. The video pan/tilt/zoom (PTZ) cameras will perform object tracking using software created by VistaScape.

"Lots of companies make cameras. What's really important here, though, is the (camera) enclosure, because Montana can undergo such extreme weather in both the winter and summer months," Adams says.

Temperatures in Helena can dive below zero during the winter, and then soar to more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit in July and August. Helena's galloping winds pose another climate challenge.

Montana-based GCS Research will build software that lets guards conduct visual "fly-throughs" of accurately scaled, 3D models of Helena Airport. Also, thanks to the integration of satellite data, guards will get aerial views of the grounds of the building and the surrounding hills and valleys.

The video and GIS capabilities will be functionally similar to those slated for an upcoming test at Newark Airport. "But the technology used will be different. The Newark test won't start until almost a year from now. After it's complete, however, the airport in Helena might integrate some of that technology," Adams says.

Other Montana-based participants in the Helena pilot include ICM and Salish & Kootemai (S&K). ICM will build a software GUI (graphical user interface) to provide a consistent look-and-feel throughout the application.

S&K, a company owned by a local Indian tribe, is producing 90 percent of the electronic components that will be used in the PDAs carried by airport guards.

Ultimately, DAIS-IDS will also be integrated with a total of 256 airport doors. "We'll be replacing the keypads currently used on the doors. Since this system will also be wireless, we won't have to daisy-chain the doors together," notes Sarnoff's Angle.

The door system will use the same RFiD contactless smart cards already under deployment at airport gates. "With this type of system, though, airports could also require employees to touch their cards to a sensor. It's really all up to the individual airport," Angle adds.

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