At Logan, new device keeps eye on everything

The camera has a 24-inch diameter and panoramic view. The camera has a 24-inch diameter and panoramic view. (Wendy Maeda/ Globe Staff)
By Brian R. Ballou
Globe Staff / May 3, 2010

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Hurried frequent fliers in suits commingled with flip-flop-wearing vacationers inside Logan Airport’s expansive Terminal A, their attention grabbed by itinerary printouts, monitors flashing departure information, and a winding line at the security checkpoint.

Rick Duggan, vice president of operations for Cains Foods, stood before a row of monitors and squinted as he tried to locate his flight number. After a reporter told him that he was underneath a one-of-a-kind surveillance camera, he looked up at the cathedral ceiling.

“That’s pretty impressive. I guess there are eyes on us right now,’’ said Duggan, 55, of Rye, N.H., studying the white half-orb dotted with nine camera lenses.

Logan Airport has added another piece of equipment to existing security measures that include full-body scanners and explosives detection units. In a post-9/11 world, the Department of Homeland Security is working with institutions such as MIT to develop tools to improve security at the nation’s airports.

The approximately 24-inch-diameter camera, a prototype developed jointly by a team of engineers at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory and at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash., has been affixed to the ceiling of Terminal A since December. Massport officials say it can do what no other surveillance camera can: blend feeds from multiple cameras into one undistorted image to provide a high-resolution panoramic view, while retaining the ability to zoom in on any spot without losing the 360-degree view.

Several people can utilize the zoom feature at the same time, another major advantage over current surveillance cameras, officials said.

Dennis Treece, Massport’s director of corporate security, pointed to an escalator at the end of the terminal and said: “Standing upon that walkway 150 meters away, you can see anything on me that is a centimeter-and-a-half wide. And the next version is going to be twice as powerful.’’

This unit is in test phase, but plans are underway for a second-generation camera that can provide even higher resolution in a smaller device, which could lead to “video analytic’’ cameras capable of automatically detecting items left unattended or suspicious activity.

John M. Fortune, program manager for the Department of Homeland Security’s Infrastructure Geophysical Division, said this is “research development that is not in its final form yet. It’s a prototype. We really want to push the security envelope.’’

John Verrico, a spokesman for the US Department of Homeland Security, said the prototype at Logan can set “exclusion zones,’’ monitoring areas such as the exit from a secure area.

“Traditionally, when there’s a breach, that means you freeze the terminal — you might even have to evacuate it if you can’t find that person. With this high-resolution camera, you’ll see a good enough picture of the person, so you can go find them quickly, minimizing the down time.’’

In January at Newark Liberty Airport, such a security breach led to the shutdown of one of three terminals for six hours, stranding thousands of passengers and leading to numerous delays.

Verrico said that about $3 million, out of the department’s Science and Technology Directorate budget, has been spent so far on the prototype for research, equipment , installation, and testing. “The challenge, as the technology develops, is to make it cost efficient so that all of our clients can afford it.’’

Advances in airport security have not come without controversy. Some travelers and the American Civil Liberties Union have argued that machinery such as the full-body scanner, which was put into use about two months ago at Logan, is intrusive.

The scanner relies on back-scatter technology to create a slightly blurred, but also revealing, black-and-white image of the traveler’s body.

Logan was among the first of the country’s airports to use the technology. The deployment of some machines was delayed in other airports because of objections by some privacy advocates. At Logan, travelers who refuse the scan are patted down.

Carol Phalen, 48, of Framingham, sat on a chair at the edge of the terminal and read a book, her carry-on suitcase near her legs.

“I have two thoughts,’’ she said. “One, it seems like a great use of technology, and the other, it seems like big brother’s watching me, so it makes me feel a bit nervous.’’

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