FAA using biometrics to enhance travel safety; smart cards to be available later to public

June 1, 2002
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is completing a security program that will provide all transportation workers with smart cards based on their individual biometric characteristics.

by John Rhea

BALTIMORE — The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is completing a security program that will provide all transportation workers with smart cards based on their individual biometric characteristics — and the cards will later be available to the traveling public — says Michael Brown, director of information systems security at FAA headquarters in Washington.

Brown stressed that all the necessary supporting technology is readily available from commercial sources. The first prototypes were completed last month, he says, and the FAA expects to begin fielding the biometric cards with transportation workers next month. He made his comments at the Military and Aerospace Electronics Conference, including COTScon, at the Baltimore Convention Center in May.

In his keynote address to the conference, Brown emphasized FAA's desire to protect individual privacy, noting that FAA will establish no databases on card users. This will not turn into a national identification card system mandatory for all Americans, a particularly thorny issue for civil libertarians, he insisted.

The credit card-size devices use fingerprints as well as scans of the human iris to verify individual identities. The cards are based on 32- and 64-bit integrated circuits and also contain a magnetic stripe, bar codes, photo identification, encryption, authorization, two-dimensional bar code, and non-contact radio frequency transmitter.

The concept is based on an open-system architecture in which a standardized credential is universally recognized across the entire transportation industry, Brown explained. One integrated and secure network of databases will maintain security. In fact, he stressed that proprietary architectures had been ruled out because they are too expensive.

Each day the FAA manages 30,000 flights that move 2 million passengers, and the program will extend to other modes of transportation. Brown estimates that some 14 million of the biometric cards will be issued.

When they become available to the flying public, which he says is about a year and a half away, they will cost $15 each. This is a bargain since FAA estimates that the total program will cost the agency $50 a card, including all the supporting network. At the moment, however, FAA officials are focusing on airport personnel and other transportation employees and contractors.

Biometrics is less labor-intensive than other identification methods and also faster, Brown said, citing studies that passengers will tolerate no more than a 6-second delay to establish their identity; the smart card now being developed is expected to handle the registration process in 3 to 7 seconds.

Fingerprints and the iris scan are the most promising biometric technologies, he says, although FAA also investigated facial recognition, geometry of the hand and fingers, signatures, and voice recognition. Additional information about the program is available on the agency's web site at http://www.faa.gov.

Brown's presentation on the FAA program was typical of the concern for heightened security in the wake of last September's terrorist attack that ran like a thread through the conference — in the formal presentations and in conversations in the exhibit area and between sessions.

Industry leaders are still assessing their response to the new climate in terms of necessary technologies and market opportunities.

Duncan Young, director of marketing at Dy 4 Systems Inc., Kanata, Ontario, envisions greater need for digital signal processors (DSPs) to support the National Security Agency's ongoing surveillance of radio traffic. He cites the requirement to monitor radio transmissions across a greater portion of the spectrum.

At Lansdale Semiconductor Inc., Tempe, Ariz., Dale Lillard, the company's president, reports that his business in legacy electronic components actually declined during the first quarter of the year due to the downturn in the economy. This is largely due to dwindling commercial sales, he says, but he also sees a lull in weapons systems procurement.

One bright spot, according to Lillard, is the program to cut the costs of the Tomahawk cruise missile through the use of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) parts. This program, which is intended to cut the program unit cost in half from $1 million to $500,000, had been scheduled to be completed last year, but is only now beginning to get back on track.

Rodger Hosking, vice president of Pentek Inc., Upper Saddle River, N.J., reports he has been getting government inquires lately on how to tie together such rapid response units as police and fire departments, which are currently not all transmitting on the same frequency.

He calls this a "homeland security opportunity," adding that a combination of COTS parts and value-added engineering to tailor the parts to the applications should be able to meet the challenge. The customer would write the software on personal computers, Hosking suggests, and the suppliers would provide the development tools. The result would be hand-held communications devices optimized for the new climate. Nonetheless, Hosking says there has been no surge in sales since the Sept. 11 tragedy.

Douglas Parker, program manager at Tempo (formerly RIFOCS Corp.) in Camarillo, Calif., says his company's harsh environment group has been very busy since the attack and cites work on the fiber optic cables for the U.S. Air Force's Airborne Laser plus ongoing U.S. Navy programs.

Older programs such as the Navy's Phalanx ship defense system should also benefit, Parker says, particularly as the needs for surveillance increase.

Another side effect of the changed climate is greater efforts to achieve electromagnetic compatibility (EMC) as more equipment radiating signals is concentrated in areas of interest, notes Jack Black, business development manager at DLS Electronic Systems Inc. in Wheeling, Ill. This need for EMC is particularly challenging in power generation applications for aircraft, he says.

Everybody has jammers these days, Black points out, and it becomes increasingly necessary to identify which signals are emanating from which jammers. The weapons are also becoming more complex, he adds, and the time has come to upgrade old aircraft with new subsystems — all placing further burdens on EMC.

One company that is clearly benefiting from the changed climate is InHand Electronics, Rockville, Md., which produces what it calls "PDAs [programmable digital assistants] for soldiers" for such companies as Raytheon Command Systems in Indianapolis and Booz Allen Hamilton in McLean, Va. — all aimed at promoting what the military services have been touting as "networkcentric warfare."

Andrew Girson, president of InHand, stressed the use of COTS in his formal presentation and in conversation at the company's exhibit. The military services had already showed interest prior to Sept. 11, according to Girson, who said it was a case of a vertical market (the military) following the trends of a mass market and, in his words, "riding the wave of technological innovation."

"Wireless is where it's at," Girson proclaimed. Among the issues to be resolved is extending battery life, which InHand is doing with software. "You can't run to a drugstore" to buy new batteries during battlefield conditions, he says.

These military PDAs are running $250 to $400 each in volume, and programmability enables the soldiers to perform a variety of functions. This also reduces weight, another critical consideration in battlefield conditions.

Girson offers this advice for suppliers serving the vertical military market: "Do what you do best and outsource the rest."

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