During one of Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight Show” monologues in mid-June, the crowd cheered when the comedian announced “A new airport screening technology was just approved that will allow travelers to keep their shoes on while going through a TSA checkpoint.”
“Now the only person taking off their shoes will be the gross guy sitting next to you on the plane,” he quipped.
But there’s truth to his humor, and not just about the unsavory individual who inevitably takes his shoes off during a flight. There will be a time in the not-so-distant future (think three years) when passengers will no longer need to remove their shoes to board a plane, even those without TSA PreCheck. A Wilmington-based company has licensed technology that uses electromagnetic waves to generate an image of the bottom of travelers’ shoes. All it requires is a seconds-long pause on a low platform.
“You’re already standing in front of an agent when you hand them your ID, and so you could be standing on the shoe screen at that point,” said Bill Frain, CEO of Liberty Defense. “Or, it could be built into body scanners. If your scan is clean, you just keep moving without taking them off.”
The dreaded shoe removal ritual became part of the TSA screening process after Richard Reid, better known as the shoe bomber, tried to detonate an explosive device in his clunky sneakers on an airliner shortly after the 9/11 attacks. As a result, in 2006, the TSA began requiring all passengers to remove their shoes. Since then we’ve all stood behind people who don questionable footwear for a plane, and then waited while they struggle to remove it.
Liberty Defense, which is based near Atlanta but is in the process of moving its headquarters to Massachusetts, was awarded a $500,000 grant this month from the Transportation Security Administration to continue developing new airport technologies. It has previously been awarded contracts from the Department of Homeland Security.
“As threats continue to evolve, we, and our partners around the world, will continue to respond by working together to raise the global baseline of aviation security and standardize best practices to make flying secure for everyone,“ Daniel Velez, spokesman for the New England region of the TSA, said in an e-mail.
The shoe scanner is the product that has garnered the most excitement because shoe removal is such a common misery. But the company has another, more experience-altering technology being tested in airports and cruise terminals in North America called Hexwave.
According to Frain, Hexwave, created with technology licensed from MIT Lincoln Labs, uses three-dimensional radar imaging and artificial intelligence to not only scan for metal, but objects such as plastic explosives, liquid explosives, ghost guns, and other weapons that a metal detector can’t pick up. It’s done in real time so people can simply walk through. He said it can handle about 1,000 people an hour. That could significantly speed up travel time. Pre-pandemic, the TSA screened about 2 million to 2.5 million travelers per day.
Hexwave will soon be tested at Pearson airport in Toronto, Canada’s largest airport. However its first application will be monitoring employees, along with individuals who come into the terminal, rather than being set up at Canadian Air Transport Security Authority checkpoints (that’s the Canadian version of the TSA). Positioning Hexwave before checkpoints adds another layer of security, such as warding off terrorist attacks within airports. One of the deadliest attacks in Belgium took place in 2016 when terrorists brought bombs into the Brussels airport and detonated them.
This general application can also be applied to spaces where security screenings are already taking place, such as schools, stadiums, and concert venues, potentially helping to thwart bombings like the one that occurred at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England, in 2017.
“The technology is getting better and better,” Frain said. “With the Hexwave you’re allowed to leave your coat on and you don’t have to remove your phone or your wallet from your pockets. They’re small conveniences, but it’s one more thing you don’t have to do.”
He also projected that the technology will result in fewer pat-downs.
Unlike the shoe scanner, which will be arriving in the near future (fingers and toes crossed), Hexwave and the ability to simply walk through TSA screening without stopping, stripping, and divesting ourselves of our worldly possessions, is a bit further away. Perhaps in five to 10 years if testing goes well.
In meantime, we’ll await further airport technology updates from Jimmy Fallon and hope for the best.
Christopher Muther can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther and Instagram @chris_muther.