WASHINGTON — If Doug McMakin's latest experiment is successful, it's going to save travelers some time and hassle at the airport someday soon.
They won't have to take off their shoes when they go through security, because a scanner will examine their feet and immediately detect whether they're security risks.
Thanks to McMakin's engineering work at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, the same technology already is in use at a handful of malls around the country, where clothing shoppers can step into machines and have their measurements instantly matched with different sizes and brands.
As questions are raised overseas about the safety of full-body scanners, engineers in Washington state are touting machines that they claim are safer and could ease airport lines and spot potential suicide bombers.
They're also trying to improve on the scanner technology to look not only at security, but at other more everyday applications, such as exposing household pests hidden behind walls, as well.
Last month, the European Union banned the use of some body scanners at airports because of cancer fears. But there's one big difference: Those that were banned emit low levels of radiation, while the technology designed in Washington state does not.
Last year, the King of Prussia Mall near Philadelphia became the first in the nation to use scanning machines for shoppers.
Here's how they work:
Without disrobing, shoppers can step into scanning booths at kiosks, and three-dimensional body measurements are matched with clothing information in a database. Out pop lists that can be sorted by brand, price, style and retailer, and shoppers can head to the racks at their favorite stores to pick out their purchases.
Company officials say the signals are much weaker than those that come from cell phones, but they record more than 200,000 points of reference for precise measurements. Radio waves bounce a signal off the skin, without using radiation or X-rays, and the entire process takes roughly 10 minutes.
After installing the scanner at the Pennsylvania mall, Unique Solutions Design Ltd. of Nova Scotia has put them in stores in Texas and Georgia, as well. Earlier this year, a Canadian investment group provided $30 million to get the scanners installed in more locations across the U.S.
Company officials expect the machines to boost sales, particularly among women, whose chief shopping complaint is that clothing sizes aren't consistent, according to retail surveys. The company said one survey found that 54 percent of consumers had difficulty finding clothes that fit, and that 28 percent of women disliked shopping because they felt uncomfortable trying on clothes in dressing rooms.
"This is a fantastic idea and is going to revolutionize the way people shop," said Tanya Shaw, the president and chief executive officer of Unique Solutions.
When people step into the "Me-Ality size matching station," they must stand still for 10 seconds while a vertical scanning wand goes to work, its 196 small antennas sending and receiving low-power radio signals.
Shaw said the company currently had only eight of its "Me-Ality" size-matching stations operating, but plans call for getting about 400 of them running at major regional shopping malls in the next three years, including yet-to-be-named locations in Washington state.
McMakin, the original project manager for developing the technology at the federal government research lab in Richland, Wash., has been working on the scanners since the 1980s.
He said one of the biggest challenges was finding a market for them. Having the right product at the right time doesn't hurt, either.
"We tried to license the technology in the '90s for the security applications, but the market wasn't ready for it at the time until, obviously, 9/11 happened," McMakin said. "That changed everything. ... But that's one of the major challenges: Even if you have a technology that's ready to go, is the market ready? And is anybody willing to invest the money to bring that technology to the market?"
He's working on an experiment that would allow authorities to use scanners to detect potential suicide bombers even before they reach an airport.
And while the idea remains in development, some entrepreneurs at the University of Oregon hope to use the scanner technology to help pest-control businesses see little critters right through the walls.
Scanners could be used at your health club, helping people lose weight and providing exact measurements of their ever-shrinking bodies.
"You can do that on a scale, but this would give you a much more precise look at how your body is actually changing," said Bruce Harrer, a commercialization manager at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
The scanners remain most popular at airports, with roughly 1,000 of them in use around the world, half of them in the United States.
About 60 percent of the scanners use the millimeter wave holographic body-scanning technology designed at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory to detect concealed objects. The remainder use "backscatter" X-ray technology, which has been banned at European airports, at least until the risks are better assessed. Pacific Northwest lab officials are confident that their technology is harmless and will become more popular as a result of the ban in Europe, even though the potential harm from backscatter scanners is unclear.
Taxpayers help fund the research.
The facility in Washington state is a Department of Energy Office of Science national laboratory that has an annual budget of nearly $1.1 billion and employs 4,800 people, who work on issues related to energy, the environment and national security. It's been managed by Ohio-based Battelle since 1965.
McMakin said the lab received $7.5 million in special funding from the Federal Aviation Administration to work on the scanner technology in the 1990s and that it got another $660,000 recently from the Department of Homeland Security. On the flip side, the lab has raised about $5 million in royalties and other income, splitting the proceeds with Battelle.
"Our strategy is not to be a profit center, although we'd like to not be a loss center either," Harrer said. "We'd like to at least cover the cost of what we do."
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