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New airport scanner could make going through security a breeze

Alfa3 Millimeter Wave Imaging Scanner

(CNN) — Imagine if going through airport security was just a matter of walking past a stretch of wall. No pat-downs, no X-rays, no metal detectors, and no need to remove any clothing.

The harsh reality of today’s air travel is at strong odds with such a fantasy, but a new type of body scanner bears the promise to make every frequent traveler’s dream come true.

It’s called “Alfa3″ and it’s based on the established technology of “millimeter wave imaging”, which is used in hundreds of scanners currently deployed in airports the world over. But unlike those, Alfa3 does not require you to enter a chamber, raise your arms and stand still while the machine analyzes your body: it is able, instead, to do its job as you simply walk by.

“It’s a type of thermal imaging”, explains Dr. Naomi Alexander, the Madrid-based physicist who invented the Alfa3, “so we see the difference in temperature between the body and objects that aren’t part of the body.”

Current systems return a detailed image of the person being scanned — passengers can in fact opt out and receive a pat-down instead — but Alfa3 uses a passive technology that can detect objects underneath clothing without revealing any anatomical details. And compared to standard metal detectors, it has the ability to spot non-metallic objects as well, such as liquids and gels.

One of the problems with current scanners using the same technology is the high rate of false positives, sometimes greater than 50 percent. The Alfa3 uses a significantly higher resolution that promises excellent accuracy and automatic detection of threats, according to its inventor.

Further advantages include the possibility to deploy the system outdoors and in a covert manner, which would make it an interesting option for military installations: Dr. Alexander has traveled to Kandahar, Afghanistan, to test one of the four prototypes in existence at a NATO military base.

But the main appeal of the scanner is surely its high throughput, over 400 people per hour. This could mean the end of security lines at the airport.

The problem is to now make potential customers aware of the new technology: “It’s not like selling sunglasses,” says Dr. Alexander, “somebody already knows they want sunglasses, so they go and buy them, whereas with this system you have to explain the advantages with respect to what else is available on the market.”

“It takes some time to sort of educate, I guess, the customer in that respect. So, it’s a process that needs to be gone through.”