Automated face recognition speeds up plane boarding

Aircraft embarkation times and border security could be improved following the trial of a self-boarding system at Heathrow’s Terminal 1.

In the trial, which ended on March 25, passengers travelling with South African Airways were invited to use so-called self-boarding through an e-gate controlled by the Passenger Authentication Scanning System (PASS).

Developed by Atkins and HAL, PASS uses Aurora’s infra-red facial recognition technology to capture passengers’ biometric data , ensuring that the person who checked-in is the person who boards the plane.

In use, passengers reaching the ‘self-boarding’ gate pass through an automatic electronic barrier which takes an infrared scan of their face.

This information is checked against the biometric data that was taken at the check-in stage.

When the two sets of data scans are successfully matched, the barrier opens and the passenger can pass through and board their flight.

The technology means that a passenger’s identity needs to be checked by airline staff only once, reducing the time it takes for passengers to get to their seats and eliminating the likelihood of passengers successfully swapping their boarding passes for the purposes of migrating illegally.

Atkins’ project director, Dr Nick Whitehead explained to The Engineer that facial recognition has been perceived as more acceptable in terms of public perception, but that a previous iteration of the technology had been too variable in its capability due to the impact of changes in lighting conditions.

Conversely, a biometric identification system based on finger printing was removed from Heathrow’s Terminal 5 despite operating successfully for a short period of time.

‘The fingerprint system was deployed and withdrawn because the Data Commissioner decided – pretty much straight after T5 was opened – that it was a disproportionate requirement on the travelling public because of the fingerprint connotation with criminality,’ said Whitehead.

The new solution, however, overcomes previous challenges encountered in facial recognition because it isn’t affected by changes in natural light conditions.

‘Therefore you get consistent images, no matter where you use it in the airport,’ he said.

By the end of February 2013 over 300 passengers had taken part in the Terminal 1 trial. Heathrow said in a statement that all personal data gathered during the trial will now be destroyed.