A helping hand for airport security

Posted on 22 Oct 2012

Roberto Priolo gets up close and personal with Robovolc, an unmanned ground vehicle developed by BAE Systems that is being used to support a European project that is hoping to revolutionise airport security.

With all the fuss about the release of the new Bond movie, you would think that the life of trade journalist would pale in comparison to a high-flying master spy, but last week I had a bit of an action-filled experience myself.

Whilst at Heathrow airport I attended a presentation on TASS, which stands for Total Airport Security System.

TASS is a concept for innovative airport security, with a single system gathering a staggering quantity of data coming from different sources, like CCTV cameras and sensors throughout the airport, and using them to identify potential threats.

Airports are very sensitive to terrorist attacks, and it is with this in mind that a consortium was created to develop the project and, with it, the next generation of airport security systems. TASS is a European initiative involving 21 partners, from airports to airport operators, universities and manufacturers.

A staged attack on Heathrow’s Terminal 5 was used to show people how TASS would react to a real-life threat: the system looks at eight security control segments (planes, baggage, crew, etc) and the correlation between them to create intelligence and identify potential dangers.

If a car is parked in a no-parking area, for example, an alert will pop up on one of the futuristic touch screens in the TASS control room highlighting two segment threats: vehicle and people. CCTV cameras will know whether the car parked illegally constitutes a threat (in the simulation a cross-check on the licence plate showed the vehicle was a stolen minicab) while location-based video surveillance can follow the suspect who drove the car around the terminal building.

Every action movie fan would have loved the TASS room – six massive screens surround the operator, who has immediate access to extremely detailed 3D maps of the terminal, CCTV cameras, alert displays, satellite imaging, and a range of other features. I felt right in the middle of the action, exactly like in a Bond movie, the only noticeable difference being that I look nothing like Daniel Craig.

When a staged chemical threat was detected by the TASS System, it was UK manufacturing that came to the rescue, through a fully autonomous BAE Systems-developed ground vehicle called Robovolc. The prototype was used to detect a simulated gas leak at Terminal 5.

Initially developed for volcanic exploration about seven years ago, Robovolc is a prototype that BAE Systems uses to develop new products for a range of different clients and scenarios. Kevin Hobbs, a lead engineer at BAE Systems’ Advanced Technology Centre, said: “The idea is to take the human operator out of danger. For the TASS project, we use a camera and gas detectors to identify threats within Terminal 5 without having to send a person into harm’s way.”

Typical applications for autonomous systems such as Robovolc are surveillance, emergency scenarios, convoying and patrolling. The BAE Systems UGV will soon be used to look for people injured in battle, for example.

“Robovolc’s most advanced feature is that it operates in the absence of a GPS signal. Once we get inside the terminal building and the signal is lost, we look at the last known GPS location and then deploy the camera to work out our estimated location within the terminal. The UGV also uses NAVSOP, a positioning system that grabs inputs from the environment around it – such as radio or mobile signals – to get its bearings,” continued Mr Hobbs, while attendees were given a rare opportunity to operate the robot by remote control. One man in his early sixties looked like a kid who had just been given a Hot Wheels r/c car for Christmas.

From an engineering standpoint, the main challenge is the robot’s power requirements. Robovolc has a two-hour autonomy, which is good for short deployments but is not always enough for longer, on-the-field missions. An extra generator is being used to fulfil the energy needs of the machine.

James Baker, managing director at BAE Systems Advanced Technology Centre, said: “Now more than ever, innovative solutions are needed to counter security challenges to airports. Unmanned ground vehicles can deliver real benefit to security services by removing people out of the most dangerous scenarios.”

After all the advanced technology I had been exposed to, my trip home on the Tube felt helplessly boring, as did my poor little iPad. So much for my licence to kill.