The Transparent Future


There’s a constant demand on the never-ending conveyor belt of transportation security, and it's summed up like this: Keep me safe without slowing me down. Some would call it a classic paradox, and an ongoing war between commerce and security. The unstoppable force is a rapid flow of goods and traffic; make the inspection process faster or get run over. The immovable object is a safe and lawful world to protect; find what’s not supposed to be there at any cost.But Alex Preston doesn't see it that way. 

Preston is head of a large operation backed by technology giant Leidos. He’s a larger-than-life figure at Leidos, a towering man with a heavy Scottish brogue and even weightier ideas. Based 50 miles from the world's most trafficked international boundary, his business unit, an industry stalwart, invented non-intrusive cargo inspection in the late '90s. (At the time, Leidos was called SAIC. In this article, Leidos refers to the company both before and after the name change in 2013.

Today, Leidos is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of transportation security products, machines that use high-tech imaging to inspect things like vehicles at border crossings and cargo containers at seaports. That's just one of its core competencies; Leidos has also perfected systems that do things like detect explosives in checked baggage and nuclear materials in freight. Preston's headquarters in Vista, California, is where I'm meeting him to discuss the future of his business. Now, to meet the modern demands of commerce and security, Preston tells me he's rethinking everything.

"Without security, there is no commerce," his logic goes, "and without commerce there can be no security." That's a refreshing take on how to operate in this industry, and Preston is on a mission to bring them together harmoniously.

It's easier said than done. The inspection industry, like any that relies on having the best technology, is in an infinite cycle of change. Our borders and ports of entry are becoming more dangerous. The enemy is more cunning. He’s no peacock; he’s a snake in your grass. He’s adapting to products and protocol to go undiscovered, and he’s doing it quickly. He’s hard to outmaneuver, especially without impeding the free movement of legitimate trade. That’s the crux of the matter. Scanning is easy, but detecting is hard. The difference is profound. That’s what makes Preston’s job a particularly challenging one.

Which is why, at the center of his new wave of products, is one simple question: How will these be faster and more effective? Getting this right at our borders and ports of entry is a big deal. The way Preston sees it, the entangled dichotomy of speed versus safety sets the stage for his team to push boundaries of its own.

In short, Preston wants to change the way we cross borders.

Take, for example, the Vehicle and Cargo Inspection System, better known as VACIS® (vak-is). With more than 500 units currently in the field, VACIS has been called on at one notorious checkpoint after another leading to some of the world's largest and most important contraband seizures.

Its empire of transparency spans some of the most dangerous checkpoints from Mexico to Morocco, giving VACIS a dubious unofficial tagline, coined by Preston: "It's everywhere you don't want to be."The VACIS Plaza XPL is the centerpiece of Preston's vision. So cutting-edge is Plaza that its first sale will invent a new market. Officially speaking, no system of its kind even exists outside the Leidos facility in California. Plaza, so named because it integrates VACIS technology into a standard border plaza, leaves an incredibly small footprint because its sensors are buried underground. X-rays beam downward from small boxes hidden overhead behind a large welcome sign, giving screeners a top-down view of a vehicle's insides and smugglers the inability to predict an inspection. This system, Preston says, is how Leidos will tip the scale yet again in favor of the good guys.

The advantages of Plaza are many. It scans hundreds of vehicles per hour. You drive straight through without stopping, creating minimal to no impact on the normal flow of traffic. Plaza retaliates against the tyranny of needlessly delaying the many to find the very few. With such an emphasis on throughput, the system, like its predecessors, remains highly effective. If a smuggler passes through Plaza, there is a very low likelihood he will go undetected. His only option is to avoid the scan which is, after all, the essential piece of the detection puzzle. With Plaza, he'll not only get caught, he'll do so in impressive time, and because the system scans his entire vehicle, there's simply no way to hide from Plaza's omniscient gaze.

Preston also sees Plaza as a game-changer for the company’s bottom line. He understands the challenge ahead of introducing the world to Plaza. After all, it has never seen anything quite like it. He's quick to offer me a glimpse of his new system in action. The demo he shows me uses computer animation of vehicle traffic zipping through the border on King Fahd Causeway, a 20-lane bridge connecting Saudi Arabia and Bahrain that carries more than 10 times the traffic for which it was designed1. It is dismal checkpoint experiences like that on King Fahd Causeway for which Plaza was created. It has been known to experience congestion that spans its entire 16-mile length. Watching the demo, it becomes easy to see why Preston thinks his group may be poised to usher in a new era of border security.

Why? Business. Preston and his team did an analysis showing that Bahraini customs currently scans less than 1 percent of traffic crossing the border at King Fahd Causeway. With 10 Plaza units installed, Bahrain would immediately achieve 100 percent scanning, with traffic flowing rapidly into the country. No more queues spanning miles. And while an uncongested border is, of course, important to travelers, the economic implications are momentous. Migrants will gain back hours of their day, meaning more time in Bahrain, pumping money into its economy rather than waiting on its bridges. On a bridge that carries nearly 600,000 people per weekend at peak volume2, that's huge. That's commerce. That's one half of Preston's entire philosophy. 



It doesn't stop there. Consider there are approximately 900 lanes of passenger vehicle traffic connecting the United States and Mexico at 45 border crossings — where the drugs go north and the guns and money go south — and that's just one border on a planet consisting of nearly 200 countries. Preston's team grew up, in a business sense, making equipment to scan 40-foot cargo containers, and though there are an estimated 17 million of those worldwide3, the number of cars recently surpassed one billion4. With 450 Plaza units on its southern border alone, what would the United States do with all that data? That's where the opportunity for Leidos extends beyond Preston's group, because to analyze so much data will require a world-class solution in its own right. "If the number of vehicles crossing the southern border equated to, say, a million cars per day," Preston explains, The kind of analytics you'd need to be able to support that would walk straight into the sweet spot of Leidos.

Plaza's foray into big data extends further with add-ons, like what Preston's group calls EasyMatch, software that uses license plate imaging to recognize repeat crossers. EasyMatch compares old scans with new ones to pinpoint changes. It introduces what's called material discrimination, the ability to discern organic matter from inorganics and metallic matter from non-metals. The system will flag, for example, a large organic mass, often a sign of explosives or drugs. With algorithmic speed and assurance, EasyMatch draws a box around suspect items lurking inside a vehicle, making a screener's job much easier and, crucially, much faster. That's the beauty of material discrimination. Since a screener's decision to stop or clear a vehicle should take only 10 seconds, 30 at most, that's everything.

Advanced material discrimination is the Holy Grail of inspection. The more things a system can detect, the more efficient all this becomes. It's this particular notion which will keep scientists busy and give rise to products that deliver on its potential. It's a concept illustrated well by Reveal®, Preston's line of baggage scanners, which can reliably identify explosive material down to its raw components. It can tell the difference, for example, between lemonade and gasoline, which you probably couldn't do with your naked eye. But Reveal's material discrimination knows that one is used to improvise explosives. In the future, that same technology will spread to more checkpoints and will know how to spot guns, drugs, or anything for which it is programmed. Preston drives home the point. 

What's the first thing customs asks you? 'Are you bringing anything into the country?' With Plaza, that question is no longer necessary. We already know.

On King Fahd Causeway, 600,000 cars are a lot to scan — and a lot of plates to catalog. It's a ton of data to analyze, Preston admits. But the knowledge to glean could aid in a very real way. Who crosses most frequently? Who crosses at odd hours? Who has caused trouble before? No more one-size-fits-all approach to border checkpoints. That's security. That's the other half of Preston's equation. As a company proud of its status as an elite solver of national defense problems, Leidos has a lot riding on this end.



Plaza will also play a role in spotting malfeasance. Images cannot be deleted, preserving traceability and shedding light on screeners with unusually high cleared vehicle rates; it safeguards an audit trail for suspect images. Finally, Plaza can beam images wirelessly to anywhere in the world. To establish this buffer between vehicle and screen is to remove the ever-present specter of human corruption. Why? Anonymity. If a screener can't be identified, he can't be threatened or paid off. These are huge concerns. Simply put, the technology cannot be blackmailed or bribed.

As head of research and development in Preston's group, Rich Amiton is in charge of pushing the technological envelope. Plaza is his brainchild. One of the advantages he’s selling is "you don't really know it's a scanning system. We wanted it to look just like something you'd encounter every day, like a stop sign or a crosswalk." (More on this later in the article.)

Naturally, when I meet Amiton in his lab, my question goes something like this: Does all this stuff actually work? All this real-time and interconnected technology represents a dramatic leap forward by anyone's standard, and I marvel at my dental x-rays. To answer such a question, Amiton’s team demos products in the so-called test lane outside its California office where I have the privilege of taking Plaza for a spin. We load up a sedan with faux contraband. There's fertilizer in the front seat; its nitrates simulate the consistency of explosives. There's a box of sugar cookies simulating a kilo of cocaine, reams of paper simulating extravagant sums of cash, and a straight-up mortar shell. I'm exactly who you don't want entering your country. Plaza spots it all like a bad cavity.



So yeah, you can see why Preston is going all-in on Plaza's future. But not to be outdone, his mobile products are hot items now, like Mobile XPL, a VACIS system mounted onto the ruggedized chassis of a Ford F-350. It's the civilian descendant of the outmoded Military Mobile VACIS, mounted on up-armored Humvees. In its heyday, dozens of Military Mobile VACIS units scanned incoming supply chain shipments at forward operating bases in and around Afghanistan. On a tour of the facility, I find a dozen or more Mobile XPL units ready to ship to Baghdad. They will be used to establish fluid perimeters around the city to sniff out car bombs; unlike stationary units, they will take ISIS by surprise. In charge of the shipment is Project Manager Lloyd Thomas who states, unequivocally, "these units will save lives." They ship the following day.

And then there's Reveal, the baggage scanners we touched on earlier, where Preston is ready to unleash CT-120, the most efficient baggage scanning machine in the world. It does computer tomography (CT) based explosives detection for large baggage plus 3-D imaging, all at a thousand bags per hour. The group is also busy working on Halo, the group's entrée into carry-on scanning. Outside the imaging and detection space, it sees a good chunk of sales from RailView®, a flight recorder (i.e., "black box") for trains. 

Even more impressive is Preston's operation when you appreciate the science of seeing through things. The foundation of that science is x-ray and gamma ray imaging, neither of which is quite as straightforward as snapping a selfie.

A radiation source and sensor are the crucial components of each machine. Solid matter standing between the two will absorb some of the radiation, scatter some more, and slow the rest, which mostly passes straight through on the same trajectory like a flashlight through a t-shirt. This is called intensity degradation, at which some materials are more effective than others. Wood, for example, is more porous than steel. VACIS maps the radiation that completes this journey to account for the unseen. The sensor, receiving radiation at different intensities, uses this data to create an image, which is actually a density graph of the incoming radiation. We can't see the object itself but we can, essentially, see its silhouette. 



Humans aren't designed to see through steel. Before the late 18th century, the very notion existed outside the realm of plausible physics. Instead, we perceive the universe through light and, for centuries, were bound to its inherent limitations. If no light could pass through an object, neither could our helpless eyes. But the discovery of magnetic force (e.g., x-rays and gamma rays) penetrating solid matter paved the road to a brave new world. It was the seminal event that made the ancient dream of see-through vision a reality. To perceive the universe in this way was to bring comic book fantasy into the real world.

It was a boon to countless industries, including medicine, where x-ray photography revealed the inner-workings of live animals without using a knife. The Egyptian government scanned pyramid tombs for hidden chambers. X-ray-equipped robots were sent down the Alaska pipeline to scan for cracked seams. Aircraft frames were inspected for foundation breaks. With technological leaps came boundless practical application, but progress was limited by the constraints of film. Then the invention of solid state dramatically accelerated image processing turnaround with digitization, and the inspection industry finally saw its own transformation.



Remember Amiton's comment about making Plaza look commonplace, like a stop sign or a crosswalk? Preston’s team understands the optics of scanning an unwitting population. In the early 19th century, shoe-fitting was done with fluoroscope imaging (i.e., an x-ray machine) until the health concerns of over-radiation came to light. Around this time, people began noticing the adverse long-term effects atomic bomb survivors began experiencing and correlated these effects with radiation exposure. As it turns out, too much radiation is bad. Depending on the amount of exposure, there could be hair loss or the liquefaction of cells, and on the far end of that spectrum is the death dose.

When scanned by VACIS, however, you experience an extremely low dose. How low? Typically, and in the case of Plaza, about .1 μSv, or microsievert, the smallest unit we have to measure the health risks of radiation. In other words, the same amount you get eating a banana. That's right. Most people don't realize it, but bananas are made of potassium, a naturally occurring radioactive element of which there are many in the world. We receive radiation, in fact, every time we stand outside in the sun.

Dental x-rays, by contrast, expose you to 1,000 times the radiation of one typical VACIS scan. According to the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), an average person should take in no more than 250 microsieverts per year. What could you do within ANSI guidelines? Eat 2,500 bananas, receive 2,500 VACIS scans, take 50 transatlantic flights, or go in for 2.5 dental x-rays.Plaza aims to hit that sweet spot where the technology remains subconscious, and that’s okay. It’s true you don't want more radiation than you need. You don't want thousands of VACIS scans, but you also don't want to eat thousands of bananas. Preston's group publishes charts that visualize these comparisons; the subtext being, in short, you're safe.

Radiation Dose Comparisons:


Much of the company's role in all of this owes itself, oddly enough, to Ted Kaczynski (a.k.a., the Unabomber). During Kaczynski's nationwide bombing spree from 1978 to 1995, Leidos invented what the Pentagon and others still use to scan mail for explosives: the Real-Time Radiation (RTR) portable digital x-ray system. At the time, the group had only a few small government service contracts and some equipment designed for the military to detect radiation leaks on aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines.

The original RTR product was developed for the United States Post office, and a more advanced version was used for security at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. Major advances to the product came about, as many did back then, following a request for information from the federal government. When the FBI issued such a request on how to stop Kaczynski, Leidos responded with the RTR solution and was awarded a contract. Leidos sold huge orders of RTR to the FBI, which then distributed the equipment to local governments, bomb squads, police forces, and municipalities — all to stop Kaczynski.

Since then, Preston's group has released several versions of RTR, and still sells the fourth generation of the product today. When you see bomb squad units carrying a piece of equipment in each hand, that equipment is typically made by Leidos; it's a radiation source and sensor.

Then around 1995, the question of how to halt the smuggling of narcotics inside tanker trucks changed everything. The Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) issued a request for information on how to identify these trucks, which ONDCP suspected were being used heavily to get drugs into the United States. Back in the day (in the world of security, everything predating 9/11 is prosaically referred to as "back in the day"), an org chart of the United States government looked completely different than it does now. There was no Department of Homeland Security, Transportation Security Administration, or Customs and Border Protection; ONDCP was the one responsible to stop the drugs from coming in.

Leidos answered the call in an effort led by Dr. Vic Verbinski, a nuclear physicist and, incidentally, father of Hollywood producer Gore Verbinski of "Pirates of the Caribbean" fame. The bid would succeed or fail based not on who could offer the best price on a product — there was no product; there wasn't even a prototype — but based on who could invent the best solution. Leidos proposed using gamma radiation to image the tankers. Verbinski's team took to the lab and boiled it down to a science project. Then a crazy thing happened: It worked, and VACIS was invented. Leidos was again awarded a contract, and Verbinski effectively became the godfather of modern inspection.

Non-intrusive imaging was a breakthrough in security the likes of which hasn't been seen since, well, the newest wave of Leidos technology.

Predating VACIS, it was an inspector’s unenviable lot to conduct the painstaking task of a manual inspection. Leidos changed that. Authorities would literally never look at cargo the same way again, and the unsustainable model of manual inspections became obsolete for many. Non-intrusive imaging was a breakthrough in security the likes of which hasn't been seen again until, well, the newest wave of Leidos technology.

Everything from then on can be traced back to Verbinski, the team, and the science they knew would change the world. It was an attitude borne of high achievement. Under the leadership of the late Dr. Bob Beyster, company founder and industry icon, Leidos had invented one brilliant solution after another for the government and become a contracting juggernaut.



Back to the drugs. It was slightly odd the opportunity had been presented. Until that point, customs agencies the world over were largely satisfied with manual inspections. The upheaval of 9/11, which would kick-start VACIS into mass production, had not yet occurred. For the most part, the chief concern was a lack of ability to levy taxes on unclaimed goods, not spotting weapons of mass destruction. Regardless, when the tanker truck solution was put to use at Port of Otay Mesa in San Diego, massive demand was created. It became an approach the whole world would embrace. "They found a lot of drugs that way," Amiton proudly nods, "lots and lots of drugs."

But Preston's group is on a mission bigger than drugs or even checkpoints. With its new wave of technology, it is at war with the international smuggling and terrorism machines. Preston's customers, on the front lines of detection, see his products as essential tools in this fight, but the battlefield will look completely different as the enemy continues to adapt. We don't often think about the technology that keeps us safe, but when it comes down to it, we expect it to be a step ahead of the bad guys. That's what Preston sees in his new products. The stakes are considerable for his business and for Leidos, each wanting to affirm the company's ability to conquer national defense problems of this magnitude and stay one step ahead in this transparency war.

 Contact Preston's team.



Written by Brandon Buckner. Original photography by K.C. Alfred. Original illustrations by Aaron Bell. Motion illustration by Darrell Funk. Design by Erin Carey.

  1. Al-Awsat, Asharq (July 25, 2013). Increased Traffic on King Fahd Causeway. Asharq Al-Awsat.
  2. Al-Sughair, Sultan (Feb. 3, 2015). Causeway 'chaos' at weekend. Arab News.
  4. Tencer, Daniel (Feb. 19, 2013). Number Of Cars Worldwide Surpasses 1 Billion; Can The World Handle This Many Wheels? The Huffington Post Canada.
  5. Ackerman, Spencer (April 3, 2013). Robots, Deep-Sea Sensors Help Pentagon Futurists Hunt Subs. WIRED.