Airport Security Safeguards

By Adam Stone

March 03, 2004

Wi-Fi at the airport isn't just for the business travelers checking e-mail -- one regional airport's new terminal security infrastructure takes full advantage of wireless.

Are terrorist operatives targeting Montana's Helena Regional Airport ? Maybe not, but airport authorities still must conform to all the same post -9/11 rules and regulations as every other aviation hub. Now the Helena Regional Airport Authority (HRAA) is turning to Wi-Fi for help to make sure their facility is locked up tight.

"When you think about an airport, there are fairly large acreages involved, and to have a wired security network you need a lot of infrastructure up front. Then, the flexibility down the road is much more difficult with the hard wire than it is with wireless," explained Airport Manager Ronald Mercer.

In addition to securing the terminal, with all it many doors and gangways, Mercer also has to keep a lock on the acres of runway and parking lot that make up the grounds of the airport. He uses technology to do this: Motion detectors, sound sensors, access cards, biometric fingerprint readers and the like.

Thanks to a $1.2 million grant from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the Helena airport is in the midst of connecting all these disparate systems through a Wi-Fi based wireless network. Called the Distributed Ad-hoc Intelligent Sensor-Intrusion Detection System (DAIS-IDS), the system is intended to serve as a model for airports around the country.

Helena could make a good test bed for Wi-Fi's capabilities as a security infrastructure. Local temperatures range from 40 below zero in the winter to 110 degrees in the summer. In addition to commercial aircraft, the airport also is home to federal offices, a military helicopter facility, a private aerospace company and several charter-aircraft businesses.

A working demonstration of the new system, with just three Wi-Fi nodes, has been up and running since Feb. 10. Data from this trial will become the basis of a forthcoming full build-out in Helena, which will involve an unspecified number of nodes.

In the long run the system should sport an ad hoc network for communicating security sensor data, intelligent software set that will sift out potential security threats without intruding on normal operations, and a fingerprint-sensitive ID card for access control.

The ID card gives a sense of the full potential value of Wi-Fi in a system like this, according to Bill Adams, CEO of G5 Technologies of Cherry Hill, N.J., which is serving as prime contractor and systems integrator on the project.

There are the obvious advantages to wireless, such as the scalability and flexibility of the system. Now take it a step further: Suppose an intruder is approaching the terminal with an invalid ID card, or with no ID card. A wired system will not detect his presence until he is literally at the door -- potentially too late to mount a defense. Wi-Fi on the other hand can pick up the signal off the card at more than 100 feet away, giving the system time to alert security personnel of a potential incursion.

"If people are rushing doors or something unusual is happening, we will be able to detect that earlier," said Adams. "The whole objective is to segregate the good guys from the bad guys, so you can focus you efforts on the bad guys."

Another advantage to the Wi-Fi system involves its bandwidth-control capabilities. When combined with proprietary software, the system can be set up to manage signal traffic in order to ensure there is always ample bandwidth available. A video signal for instance can be split up to ensure that ample bandwidth remains in case other signals are needed.

The development team also chose Wi-Fi as its infrastructure because of its rapidly growing acceptance by makers of wireless device makers, Adams said. With numerous security devices attached to the network and more on the way in the coming years, developers wanted to build upon a standard that was most likely to be ubiquitous.

Airport authorities meanwhile are looking forward to Wi-Fi delivering on its promise of long-term cost savings. As a smaller airport, the Helena facility has limited resources, yet the past few years have seen a growing demand for security safeguards throughout the airport. "So far the answer has simply been put more people out there, but there is no revenue stream to offset that," Mercer said.



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