PNNL's scanner technology goes commercial

ROB HOTAKAINEN HERALD WASHINGTON, D.C., BUREAU December 11, 2011 

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 Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, 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, PNNL engineers are touting machines that they claim are safer and could ease airport lines and spot potential suicide bombers.

They also are 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 is one big difference: Those that were banned emit low levels of radiation, while the technology designed at PNNL 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 said the signals are much weaker than those that come from cellphones, 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 about 10 minutes.

After installing the scanner at the Pennsylvania mall, Unique Solutions Design Ltd. of Nova Scotia 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.

Tanya Shaw, the president and chief executive officer of Unique Solutions, said the company currently only had 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.

McMakin, the original project manager for developing the technology at PNNL, 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 is 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 PNNL.

The scanners remain most popular at airports, with about 1,000 of them in use around the world, half in the United States.

About 60 percent of the scanners use the millimeter wave holographic body-scanning technology designed at PNNL 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. PNNL 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.

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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