Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in Asia Pacific Airports Magazine and was penned by Tony Chapman, the author cited here.
In a world that is being forced to up the ante when it comes to security measures, one of the best solutions might be right under our noses: biometrics. As they relate to travel, biometrics offer the capability to create an experience that is both safe and seamless, kicking off everyone’s adventure on the right foot.
Just imagine how that airport experience might work: You enter the airport and walk up to the self-service baggage kiosk where your passport is scanned, followed by scan from a facial recognition camera that compares it to the biometric data on your passport and your travel documents, confirming your identity.
You deposit your bag and head to security where, once again, your face is used to confirm you are who you say you are and you’re waved through. At the gate and even at the destination airport, you move through the airport quickly and easily, while the airport maintains the utmost security.
This exemplifies the massive potential of biometrics in a travel setting. Your face (it could just as easily be your fingerprint, iris, earlobe, etc.) has become your biometric token, eliminating the documents – think passport and driver’s license – traditionally used to verify your identity.
While this experience has not yet arrived for all travelers, the use of biometrics to improve security, as well as the passenger experience, is gaining ground at airports around the world – and for good reason.
The Benefits of Biometrics
Globally, there are a number of airports/airlines, including well-known trials at Heathrow T5, Delta Air Lines, JetBlue Airways and more, that are conducting biometric trials, and security is one of the key reasons.
Thanks to our smartphones (which commonly use fingerprints – and now facial scans – to unlock our device) as well as other applications, biometrics has become ubiquitous. As consumers have become increasingly familiar and comfortable with the general concept, the potential for biometric identification is easily applied to other uses and areas.
Using biometrics today as part of the airport screening process provides the opportunity to, at the very least, be as effective as (but more likely more effective than) current manual screening processes. Why? Biometrics provides more consistent results; after 8 or 80 hours, the technology does not suffer from fatigue (the way a person might) and will screen exactly the same way.
Additionally, new technological innovations and standards are becoming more commonplace at airports – and are providing increasingly accurate results. The accuracy of the cameras used, the processing power of the equipment, as well as the methodology and algorithms are all improving.
Technologies that measure the distances between facial features, for example, can capture data that is verified by cameras located at strategic points within the airport and linked to airport computer systems that hold travel documentation.
The use of infrared cameras, which are less prone to variable lighting conditions, is increasing. With these cameras, the ambient lighting does not distort the image captured, which, with windows everywhere, is a common problem at airports. And those infrared cameras now have a much higher flash rate so they can take many more frames per second – meaning they have the chance to get a much better quality image of the face.
But wait, there’s more. Companies like Rockwell Collins are already working to incorporate Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies to improve the process even further. For example, rather than trying to map a face into a series of geometric points, Rockwell Collins is using artificial intelligence to recognize a face and say it’s the same face based on a self-learning AI algorithm.
Applying the Technology
Regardless of the technology, the move towards biometrics can enhance security in other ways. Retraining security personnel to deal with the “exception” versus the “standard” could make the entire process faster and more secure. Security officers could be focused on looking for cues that may indicate a concern (e.g. someone sweating profusely or acting anxious) that a person would be able to notice but that a computer taking an iris scan wouldn’t. The result: additional screening measures could be applied when warranted, not necessarily “at random.”
Beyond security, biometrics has the opportunity to remake the passenger experience. As passengers embrace self-service technologies, biometrics enables a much faster and more pleasant trip through the airport. Rockwell Collins is creating self-service solutions that integrate biometric authentication into each phase of passenger processing, so everything from check-in through boarding the airplane can be securely automated while making the experience more care-free and smooth for the traveler.
Currently Challenges Exist
Despite its numerous advantages, implementing biometric programs at the airports globally has its challenges. As you might imagine, standardization among identity documents around the world is a large one. One example: European passports contain a digital file for each person’s image while U.S. driver’s licenses do not.
Another difficulty to consider is that the actual biometric used can vary. Facial recognition is quite common but cannot be used in some cultures, for example, if a woman is wearing a burka. It also requires passengers to look at the camera, which may not be feasible in some instances (a disabled person, a small child). And even though other modalities, like fingerprints or iris scans can be used, they also have limitations.
Privacy laws are also a main concern, specifically regarding biometrics data sharing, which differ from country to country. And while passengers currently have a choice and can opt out, in the future such programs could become mandatory.
Even with the existing challenges, using biometrics at airports looks promising. The benefits already being realized from current trials all but guarantee a continued expansion of the technology. Ultimately, biometrics are giving airports a way to maintain rigorous security levels and improve the passenger flow/experience. So while the nirvana-like travel experience initially described is not here yet, it may be very soon.