Your position in life often helps you prepare for your next opportunity, even if it’s 180 degrees from your current position. Such was the case for Analog Devices and its technologies which are embedded within airport scanners. 

There are some technologies that have re-defined their categories and made game-changing improvements in their applications. And while these technologies generally emerge to solve a specific problem (airport security), we can suddenly envision the range of possibilities they create for similar problems in other settings (public spaces).  However, some technologies prove extremely difficult to scale, and without persistent ingenuity and problem-solving, never reach their full potential.

Airport scanners are a great example of this scalability challenge. As you know, these scanners are the big capsules you step into, raise your arms, await the mechanical arm sweep around you until an agent ushers you through. These scanners work on millimeter-wave RF technology, which produces a high-resolution image of your body, revealing concealed objects with impressive detail.  Far superior to traditional walk-through portals that simply beep if they detect something metallic, mmW scanners show a security agent exactly where to look and what to look for should they need to inspect further. 

ADI engineers thought, if mmW body scanning has been so effective in thwarting airline security threats, why can’t we leverage it in schools, conference halls, malls and stadiums, where tragedies are an increasing occurrence? 

A few years ago, an entrepreneurial team of technologists at Analog Devices working with University of California/San Diego (UCSD) and Pacific Northwest Labs, looked into how the original airport scanners could be modified for public use. They knew the technology could save lives, but the scalability challenges needed to be solved. 

It’s never that simple.

The core challenges in scaling body scanning technology comes down to three things: size, speed, and cost.  Today’s scanners are too cumbersome for venues with tight crowded spaces, too slow to process large numbers of people quickly, and too expensive to be practical for most schools, businesses, and venues.  To work, the technology would have to be completely re-architected in a number of ways.

  • Instead of processing a single stationary person with a moving sensor, the sensors need to be stationary allowing multiple people to simply walk through at normal speed
  • Unlike high-resolution airport scanners which need to detect small items, scanners in public venues would only need to detect larger mass casualty items like firearms and explosives. This means fewer sensors can be used, which would help reduce cost
  • Fewer sensors and lower-resolution imaging requires less overall data. This speeds up processing enough for people to walk through without stopping. 
  • Fewer sensors means they must be strategically positioned, the object detection and classification algorithms need to be modified, and each sensor has to process multiple signals
  • To reduce size and cost, the partition between integration level of the sensors and adjacent electronics needs to be carefully considered. Too much integration reduces the flexibility the systems have in adapting to different use-cases
  • Flexibility and configurability is critical to both production cost (less customization) and implementation cost
  • Because RF regulations vary from country to country, the sensing technology must be flexible enough to accommodate a range of frequencies and sensor positioning

It all started in a garage.

Many exploratory R&D initiatives such as the airport scanners are nurtured in ADI’s emerging technology incubator, the Analog Garage. The Analog Garage focuses on technologies we believe will have high potential and impact, but lack a clear market and commercial opportunity.  The Garage also invests in high-potential startups, which receive the funding, mentoring, and engineering support to bring their ideas to market.

This particular team worked under the support of the Analog Garage developing the necessary mmW capabilities, partnering with a prominent research university and a national lab.  Once the technology was sufficiently demonstrated in the Garage, the team transferred the concepts to a full product development. At this point, the engagement shifted to customers where their real-world system requirements and challenges began to shape the actual product.

Someday soon, you may be on your way into a baseball game or concert and pass right through one of these scanners without knowing the safety implications at work, thanks to the inquisitive minds at ADI.