Creating the security checkpoint of the future with Bill McGann
We are entering a new age of air travel, and the security checkpoint could look much different with new technology advances.
To talk about what technology is and has been implemented in airports to protect and support travelers is Bill McGann, Chief Technology Officer for Leidos’ Security Detection & Automation operation.
Leidos acquired L3Harris Technologies’ Security Detection and Automation businesses in May, and now offers a comprehensive suite of fully automated and integrated security technology solutions for aviation, ports and borders, and critical infrastructure customers around the world.
In today’s episode of MindSET, we focus on airports and how our portfolio will help facilitate safe, healthy, and efficient passenger movement and enhance the passenger travel experience.
Why is Bill the best person to talk about this? Having worked in the arena for over 30 years, you can hear his passion for the subject when he talks.
“You've always got to lean forward and look ahead and never let the current events in the world stop you. And that is the vision that I know the team I work with in Leidos has and we're generally really excited.”
This is an incredibly enlightening episode, not just because the subject is pertinent to all of us, but because the technologies that Bill discusses aren’t in the distant future, some of them exist in operation today at current checkpoints around the world.
On today’s podcast:
- What the checkpoint of the future looks like
- How passenger experiences in security checkpoints can be improved
- The touchpoints that will enhance the passenger experience
- Creating a frictionless travel experience
Bill McGann: You haven't even left your living room at this point, and you're already, the airport knows when you're coming and it can actually message you and say, you know what, based on your destination and the flight manifest in the staffing system of the airport at the time you're leaving, it's best for you to arrive at 10:13 AM and go to lane six.
Bridget Bell: Welcome to MindSET, a Leidos podcast. I'm your host, Bridget Bell.
Meghan Good: And I'm your host, Meghan Good. Join us as we talk with pioneers in science, engineering, and technology to understand their creative mindset and share their stories of innovation.
Bridget Bell: Today, we're speaking with Bill McGann, chief technology officer for Leidos' Security Detection and Automation Operation. Leidos acquired L3Harris' Technologies, Security Detection and Automation businesses in May and now offers a suite of fully automated and integrated security technology solutions for aviation, ports and borders and critical infrastructure customers around the world. So today we're talking more about airports and how this portfolio helps facilitate the safe, healthy, and efficient passenger movement and enhances passenger experience.
Bridget Bell: So Bill, describe to us, really, what is the checkpoint of the future?
Meghan Good: In our discussion centered around a lot of what technologies exist today in current checkpoints, but then where things are going in the future to really come together in this, as he describes an open connected and secure passenger experience.
Bridget Bell: And what stood out to me is that the future is not really that far off. A lot of the technologies and capabilities are being applied today to make this change happen.
Meghan Good: And he even told us where we could see them, but for the big thing that I got from this was talking about the convergence of all these different technologies that we've even talked through during MindSET, with AI and ML and analytics and sensors, and then how all that is still building a better secure environment for passengers and for the security personnel at airports and how they're really operating as these mini cities that are like a technical utopia.
Bridget Bell: And we couldn't talk about airports without also talking about COVID-19. And so Bill goes into some of the technologies that are being applied to keep passengers safer and healthier as they go through the security checkpoint. So with that, let's dive into the conversation with Bill McGann.
Bridget Bell: Welcome to MindSET. Today we're speaking with Bill McGann, chief technology officer for Leidos' Security Detection and Automation Operation. Leidos acquired L3Harris Technology's security detection and automation business is in May and now a suite of fully automated and integrated security technology solutions for aviation, ports and borders and critical infrastructure customers around the world. For airports, this portfolio helps facilitate safe, healthy, and efficient movement of passengers and enhances passenger experience. So today we're going to talk to Bill more about the checkpoint of the future.
Bridget Bell: Welcome, Bill.
Bill McGann: Thanks very much, Bridget. It's a pleasure to be here.
Bridget Bell: So let's get started with a little bit about your background. Can you tell us more about your role at Leidos?
Bill McGann: Sure. So I currently serve, as you announced earlier as the chief technology officer for the security detection and automation business, which came out of the L3Harris Corporation and was really a commercial business focused on providing products and solutions for the aviation security space and critical infrastructure. So from my own perspective, I have been involved in the, call it homeland security industry around security and detection products for about 31 years, going back to 1989, right following the tragic event of Pan Am 103. So it's really exciting to see how the industry, the customers, the technologies and the products have migrated in that time. It's been a great journey and I think today we sit here as part of Leidos with terrific opportunities in front of us.
Meghan Good: Well, with so much of that focus now to the future, I'm wondering, we were talking about the title of this effort and the work that you're doing in security detection and automation. So how do you define the checkpoint of the future?
Bill McGann: Yeah, so the checkpoint for aviation security has been a very, very prominent focus around the world since 1989. And it has evolved dramatically from checking people for carrying weapons on airplanes to prevent hijacking to today, the current state, with very sophisticated technologies and concepts of operation to prevent acts of terrorism against the most wide range of threats and circumstances to impact aviation safety. So our view has been to, we've grown along with the industry and developed many of the core technologies and underlying products to serve that industry, and today the industry is really poised moving from first, the focus on technology then migrated to a focus on products, and today is now becoming more of a focus on solutions and capabilities. So this is the mindset of the customers in the airports around the world, as they migrate passengers from the public land side to the secure air side for commercial air travel.
Bridget Bell: So as the checkpoint evolves, and we look at the future of commercial air travel, what is that future? Is there a future for travel?
Bill McGann: It's interesting times too, to talk about what is the future of the checkpoint of the future, but let's just pivot for a moment to the checkpoint of the future concept in itself. So our vision, very simply stated, is to use technology products and capabilities to create an open, connected and secure passenger experience through that land side to air side journey and that means a whole host of things. And it has a series of requirements starting with a strong underpinning of technology. And then on top of that, a very, very focused layer of operational concepts, where for example, what you see in a checkpoint today, the screener operators that man, the checkpoints, but what's been missing since the inception of this industry going back 30 years is the passenger.
Bill McGann: And I always, whenever I give talks or make comments to people about this exciting opportunity, I always say today, we largely, as passengers, travel through the security experience as victims. We have very little ability to become part of the process other than doing what you're told, divesting your bags, taking off your shoes, your belts, your watches, and we want to transform that experience to make it open, connected, and secure, but also have the passenger opt-in to the security process.
Bill McGann: And, there are some embryonic examples. People are probably familiar with TSA-Pre, also like the Clear app where you can opt into submitting, for example, your biometric identification, which gets pre-vetted. And you get to go into sort of a fast lane for security. but these are really very early, early models and again, as I have said, they're not at an advanced stage. I sometimes wittingly say that they're not even as mature as like a Starbucks app where you have all kinds of options at your disposal. And our vision ultimately is to create a security app where the person can begin the security experience from their point of origin, which is their home and carry that experience all the way through to the point of destination with all of the touch points in the middle that provide that open, connected and secure experience.
Bridget Bell: So if I may, what does that really look like then? What kinds of touch points are there to make in that passenger experience?
Bill McGann: So starting with the current situation, the checkpoint, and it's pretty easy to see all of the components that are very visibly in front of you today with multiple screeners per lane and operators wheeling around carts of plastic bins. So today this is where we began, and then as we begin to modernize the technology at the checkpoint itself, and I'll speak specifically about the products that we're using to do that as part of Leidos now, then we want to extend that both out to the curb and then onto the destination. But starting at the core, which is that public to secure landside/airside transition known as the checkpoint of today, we have a series of new technologies that we have incorporated into a new generation of products.
Bill McGann: Let's start with your bag. So today, as a passenger with a carry-on bag, maybe two, you walk up to a checkpoint, you're immediately asked to grab bins. And by the way, the average in America is about 3.1 bins per passenger, because you take your carry-on bag, you have to unload all of your personal items and toiletries. You have to divest all of your electronic items like laptops and iPads. And then you have to take the residual contents of the bag and put all three of those things separately into bins. Oftentimes people carry a second smaller bag, similar process there, and then you're at, so that's the bag security part. You put all that on a conveyor. And that conveyor goes through, what is today known as the standard advanced technology x-ray systems. The reason that you have to divest all of those contents from the bag is that the current state of technology does not adequately assess the security level of a bag with all those contents inside.
Bill McGann: So we have new technology and it's being deployed around the world. Today there's about 300 systems worldwide, and Leidos has populated the world with about half that number. There are many, many more coming, thousands will be deployed in the coming years. So that market is just beginning for us and we'll play a very strong role in it. Meanwhile, as you're divesting your bag and watching the bins go through the little led curtains onto the x-ray system, you end up taking off your shoes and divesting those to the belt, along with any large jewelry items, belts, and whatnot, and you walk through a body scanner. That body scanner really is looking at you from the perspective, if you've divested everything from your pockets and your person there should really be nothing left. So it's really looking for anything that was forgotten, left behind, a hotel key in your pocket that, the systems are very sensitive and capable of picking up the smallest anomalies in a pocket or in the crease of a pant or a shirt, where you might be trying to conceal something such as let's say a weapon, for example.
Bill McGann: So that technology also has been pioneered by the Leidos Security Detection Automation business, and today, while there are other competitors in the market, we enjoy a very, very large share of that market and are working with new technologies to further advance that. One of the challenges there, if you've done it, is you go in and you put your arms up in the air, you stand there for a couple of seconds, then you exit the portal or the provision as it's called, and then you wait there for the screener to look at a display, which you largely can't see, and that display is telling them if there are any, there's not an image, but are there any areas on your body where they might want to touch or pat down.
Bill McGann: Pivot for a second to the new airport of the future travel experience, where touching is not a good thing in the wake of the pandemic. In fact, it's still largely with us. So the TSA in airports around the world are going to be really looking for technologies that minimize the screener/passenger touch interaction. Our new technologies for people scanning have dramatic improvements in their performance, such that the need for pat downs, while it doesn't go away a hundred percent, is dramatically reduced. So that's going to add a level of bio protection in addition to enhanced security.
Bill McGann: So now you've made it to the other side and you are literally standing in what I would describe as the air side of the checkpoint, which is secure, but not quite, because your bags have gone through the x-ray tunnel and assuming they haven't given rise to any indication or an alarm, your bags emerge, you repack them, put your shoes on, and you're away. Sometimes, however, the bags do alarm and they need to be resolved. That's when the passenger gets called down to a secondary screening station where they're met by another different TSA screening officer, and they use a chemical detection system called an ETD, standing for explosives trace detection. And there's a very precise described concept of operations where the operator will make you stand in front of them, identify your bag, ask you a few questions. And then they begin to take a chemical sample of the inside contents and outside of the bag. And what they're looking for is some way to resolve the alarm to say it's either something or nothing that was generated by the x-ray.
Bill McGann: Once you get through that aspect of the security system, the only thing that happens now is the security system kind of resets itself for the next passenger. So all those bins that you took, they go into a compartment, we call it a “lower-vator”. It's basically a little elevator for the bins that travels down underneath the conveyor system. And those are automatically shuttled all the way back up to the front of the line where new passengers begin their divestment process. So the whole system of components exist today to provide this frictionless, semi-automated experience, but the technologies aren't used that way to their full extent. And that is we're focused on taking all those great powerful technologies and combining them into a set of capabilities where the passenger really gets a frictionless travel experience.
Bridget Bell: It sounds like you're adding the finesse around all the technology there.
Bill McGann: For sure. I've spend too much time dwelling on the past, but going back over the decades when this was all new, customers and airports are very concerned about, does the technology work. Today, 30 years later, the customers and the airport operators, they're accepting that the technology has a certain level of performance and they've moved past that. They're now saying, "What can it do for me? What benefit in security does it provide? Can it be automated? Can I build complex solutions using these core elements of the technology to create a passenger experiments that safe and fast?", because airports around the world largely are public/private commercial entities. So it's important for the passengers to feel good about the travel experience, because it actually generates revenue for the cities, the towns, and the countries where these airports operate. So it really is a commercial endeavor where technology creates solutions and capabilities that drive the future state.
Bridget Bell: Talking through the passenger experience always makes me think of Leidos' mission statement, to make the world safer, healthier, and more efficient. And it sounds like we're truly doing that for travelers. We're making travel and passengers safer, healthier, and more efficient as they get through these checkpoints. And so I'm curious, what are those capabilities that will improve passenger experience as they move through the checkpoint process?
Bill McGann: By the way, that is one of the most exciting things for me personally, about being part of the new Leidos Security Detection Automation team. It really is the almost perfect time to coalesce and converge all of the great capabilities that Leidos has to build holistic solutions. So let's talk about how some of the technologies enable passenger experience. We've already touched on them. I just haven't perhaps provided a strong connection. So how does it feel when you walk up to a checkpoint and instead of spending a very rushed minute or so divesting all the elements of your bag, hoping to God that you remembered to take everything out and just taking your bag and putting in a bin and walking through the body scanner where you don't have to raise your arms up in the air, but you just walk straight through a very innocuous portal and emerge on the other side.
Bill McGann: And meanwhile, your bag comes out, you pick it up and you walk away. You don't take off your shoes, you don't divest yourself. You take nothing out of your bag. What does that feel like from an experience point of view? Very different, right? So that's the ultimate goal of a frictionless checkpoint. Now it's very important point out, we are not sacrificing the security of that situation compared to what it is today. In fact, we have enhanced the security. The detection capabilities of the systems and technologies that will drive that experience will, and actually already are more powerful than the systems in place today, both on the x-ray side that I described and on the body scanner side that I described as well as even the secondary, because they'll always be some low level, and maybe it's only going to be a half of 1% now of alarms that have to be resolved by a secondary chemical ETD test.
Bill McGann: So the confusion, the congestion at the checkpoint is going to be considerably reduced and you're going to kind of be concerned more about your neighbor and your narrative neighbor's journey as you migrate this frictionless experience. And so now what? So now you can, once you've attacked that problem and provided some good capability and solution, you can extend that and you could create a security application where the person starts their journey at their home. That happens, again, a little bit today, not incredibly sophisticated. You can download your boarding pass from the airline. Okay, well, you could do a lot more than just that. You could start to register yourself for the security travel process at your home. If you have security applications that you opt into, with a passenger is actually part now of the network architecture. You're no longer a victim. You're in control of your journey to some degree.
Bill McGann: And because you're a known entity, because perhaps you submitted your biometric, your phone gives you a little QR scan code. So you haven't even left your living room at this point and you're already, the airport knows right when you're coming and it can actually message you and say, "You know what, based on your destination and the flight manifest in the staffing system of the airport at the time you're leaving, it's best for you to arrive at 10:13 AM and go to lane six." And when you get to the airport, scan your QR code at a kiosk, at the curb, not even inside the airport. And at that curb, that will actually issue you a physical boarding pass, if you prefer, if not continue to use your own, it will actually, perhaps, in the world of the pandemic, for example, ask you some questions.
Bill McGann: Have you been sick in the past two weeks? Have you traveled to XYZ? And while it's doing that, it can be validating your biometric by looking at you. It can actually be measuring your basal body temperature by looking at the infrared image of your tear ducks. It can be measuring your respiratory rate and it can be measuring your heartbeat. Now we need to be very careful how you do these things. And remember, this is not going to be a HIPAA issue. The passengers are going to opt into this process because they want to have that secure experience. So if you opt into that by the time you get to the airport, you know exactly where you're going. You have a very terrific estimate of how long it's going to take you to get through the security checkpoint onto the air side. And then you can, as you do that, and become a frequent traveler, now the airport can say, "There's a Starbucks down terminal B corridor. We'd like to offer you a free beverage, because you've arrived early for your flight."
Bill McGann: This is how you can interact with the open architecture software platforms that we're developing today to combine all of these very powerful, I refer to them as powerful data recording devices, and using artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms not only as we do today just to detect threats, but to actually provide passenger services. That's the real key. It's going to be driven by a tightly integrated, highly automated architecture, where the technology components are effectively, in networking terms, edge devices that have some intelligence at the edge, have data capability, storage analysis, and they're providing lots and lots of metadata that are really nothing more than a series of events where the system can take action upon. So I refer to it as an action event engine where the passengers events to find their experience and they have a great deal of control in that future state.
Meghan Good: That is a really interesting future state that you're painting too. And I don't think I've ever thought of an airport as almost like a mini smart city, the way that you're painting it. You know, there's lots of sensors, there's lots of data to be gathered. And as you said, it is very event driven. So as you're thinking through this open architecture and all of these components that are going to get integrated together, I mean, my mind always wanders to the cybersecurity side, but we could put a pin on that. But what of that do you think that we're going to start to see in the next five years?
Bill McGann: Yeah. It's happening now. It's an insightful question. So it's all going to be driven by standards. And by the way, we could talk a little bit about cyber because that plays in key to it, but before you get there, the systems that are in operation today, even the new modern technologies that I've described to you to this point, they can, they can exist on their own and be sort of discreet data recording devices providing information, but the power of them is when you combine them on a sort of a plug and play open architecture, where they, with a common messaging system, where all the data or metadata as produced by those systems can start to provide answers or information because the power of data is to provide information. And once you have information in the hands of a security officer, now you can make decisions and decisions drive security.
Bill McGann: So the architecture and the standards that are used so that anybody's qualified set of technology systems can literally plug in and this is going to be a key foundational shift in our industry where today all of the companies ... and the good news is there are not hundreds of companies that operate in this space as direct competitors. There's literally a handful. And so the mission of getting everybody aligned on a common standard while nontrivial, and if you've ever worked on standards committees for globalization of technology standards, it's always a diverse and rich discussion. And you really drive, in the end, a common structure for all of the participants to offer their services on that architecture. That's what we're up to. It's actually being led right now outside of the US, interestingly enough, though TSA is strongly participating, but the ACI International has committees on aviation security and a series of subcommittees, one of which is an open standards committee. And that is really just beginning in its infancy and all of the major equipment providers, including Leidos and myself, I sit on that committee as well.
Bill McGann: It's really defining our future state through technology and in that there is going to be an entire layer of cybersecurity. And here's why. So without getting too deep on it, imagine today, JFK, it's got numerous terminals, seven, eight terminals, I think, maybe more. Every one of those terminals will be able to be tightly integrated and highly automated with the technology at the various checkpoints within that terminal. But what about connecting the terminals together? And what about connecting JFK or LaGuardia, and what about connecting all of the little smaller regional airports into the security equation?
Bill McGann: That will not happen unless the communication layers are cyber secure. And that is a right now, a major point of discussion and obviously presented as a challenge to us, those in the industry that provide technology solutions to address, and we're doing it in partnership with the global community airport operators, government regulators, policy makers, and of course, domain experts in cyber security, as well as the domain experts in security detection. So it really is becoming a robust organizational effort to create solutions from these technologies, open architectures and cybersecurity sits at the core.
Bridget Bell: So going back to this passenger experience and the mini smart city that Meghan mentioned, once we have those open standards, what is that next path? How do we get there?
Bill McGann: So again, this is actually happening. So, two years ago, these were concepts for discussion. Today, there are opportunities in the markets we serve to do this and, to name a few London Heathrow, the world's busiest airport is actually looking to modernize their airport infrastructure and, of course, their security paradigm is part of that. And they are going to be drivers, catalysts for all the things that I've described that are either ready to go or still being developed and how they're going to be tightly integrated and automated through software. Some of these major airports who are in the middle of modernization programs are putting a demand on the industry to deliver those solutions. So there's nothing better in a commercial business to be driven by demand. So there are some major opportunities in Europe, and I mentioned Heathrow, there's opportunities going on in Germany, in Munich, in Ireland at Dublin airport, in the Middle East, in Kuwait.
Bill McGann: Let's not forget TSA. In this sense, TSA is nominally 50% of the global market in terms of checkpoint security opportunity, the number of lanes. So they're a huge player in this as well. So having the right communication and partnering relationships with the regulators in TSA, while they have some unique attributes to themselves versus the other part of the world where they both regulate and acquire technology, that's a little bit unique compared to other places. They're nonetheless very involved in defining standards as well for how products are qualified, but also now more and more how they integrate together in a seamless and frictionless way. That's how it's going to come together, by demand in the industry and in the markets we serve.
Meghan Good: I must say, as a formerly frequent air traveler, I'm pretty excited for what you've described, being TSA-Pre, or even watching those people fly by using Clear has been quite a nice change to what we were used to for so long. And what you're envisioning and what you're even seeing, that path to the future. I mean, how much better is air travel going to be? That's awesome.
Bill McGann: Yeah, it's an exciting time to be sure. And the really great thing is that yourself and all passengers that travel in commercial aviation are going to see these changes unfold in front of them in real time. This is not coming soon to a theater near you, 10 years from now. This is happening. The initial deployments around the world for these technologies has begun. As I said, at the beginning, there's new technologies for people of body scanners, there's new generations of secondary screening. These lanes are really very highly automated conveyor systems. So the whole concept of pushing your bins in, all that's changing.
Bill McGann: And when you look around when you travel, if you do, you'll start to see it. So Boston Logan Airport, JFK, LaGuardia, all the McCarran Airport in Las Vegas, these are all locations in the US where these systems are starting to be deployed. Some of them on a trial basis, some to sort of walk before you run approach. Europe, Schiphol Airport is a great example. I mentioned Heathrow has a huge modernization program for security technology. You're going to see this happening in the coming year.
Bridget Bell: Well, then we can't go through a conversation about the checkpoint of the future without talking about COVID-19 and the recent pandemic. And so what changes are you seeing in technologies or capabilities implemented in checkpoints?
Bill McGann: We and others are really trying to take an approach to our security technology and solutions development, as we've been talking about and combining them in a smart way to add passenger confidence by lowering touch, which I mentioned, for example, on the body screeners, by improving their performance and having them be walked through frictionless. But also, for example, one of the key things to do is the contact contamination of touching things. And I mentioned the dramatic enhancement of reducing the number of bins when it goes through the new x-ray technology and those bins themselves that we're using are going to be different.
Bill McGann: We've partnered with a manufacturer to add nano-particles to the plastics and these nano-particles contain metal particles that are known and they're active on the surface. They don't do anything to the bin. They don't wear out. Really, they kind of permanently embedded in the plastic and these metals are known to, and I won't bore you with the details of the precise chemical reaction, but these chemical reactions are known for a hundred years, interestingly enough. And they're now being deployed through the use of nanotechnology to actually effectively bleach out the bacterial contamination on the surface using very well understood chemical reactions using these nano-powders.
Bill McGann: Those are things in addition to the touchless applications that we've been talking about are added measures. And like I also said about the kiosk at the front, where it can measure your temperature, all these things can be combined into a pretty substantial set of information that can be used to give the passenger confidence that their journey is not just open, connected and secure, but also safe from a health perspective.
Meghan Good: Now, Bill, I'm going to divert a little bit here, but oh my gosh, you're passionate about this. And you work with some really cool technology. So I'm wondering, did you always think that this would be the field that you would work in or has this been one of those magical journeys?
Bill McGann: So for me, life has been a magical journey. That's the short answer. I became very passionate about industry in the late 1980s. I actually was a founder of one of the original companies in the what is now known, homeland security industry, and have had an amazing opportunity to work with so many great people and so many great companies along the way, starting with my own. And I feel personally that the people that I go around the world and speak to whether it's at conferences or at meetings. I mean, these people are our partners. They're serious. Every one of them is every bit as passionate as I am about what they do. It gives you a sense of dual purpose because you get to work with really exciting technologies and putting on your PhD hat, these are really cool things to develop and invent and think about how to solve these complex problems. But you know what, the dual purpose pot, where you know that the outcome is that it's actually doing good. And that's the real, what keeps the passion engine going for 31 years.
Bridget Bell: Well, and I agree you can hear the excitement in your voice over this topic. And I think it also, it gets Meghan and I excited that we want to see this checkpoint of the future and make it happen. So as we close out, any final words for the audience?
Bill McGann: Well, I feel like I've probably spoken too much, but I've tried to give a sort of a multi-decade perspective on the evolution of technologies to products. And now focusing on using those in an automated way to perform solutions and drive capabilities for our customers to make that passenger experience safe and secure both from an aviation security perspective and also, as we say, start adding on some personal health and safety. So I think, I'd just like to say thank you for allowing me to speak about things that I love to do.
Bridget Bell: Oh, well, thank you so much for sharing, Bill. This is awesome.
Meghan Good: And to our audience, thanks for listening to MindSET. If you enjoyed this episode, please share with your colleagues and visit leidos.com/MindSET.