Belfast Telegraph

£1m grant for Queen's University to help slash airport queues

Queues inside Belfast International Airport
Queues inside Belfast International Airport

BY ALLAN PRESTON

Airport queues in Belfast could be slashed within years thanks to a new research project from Queen’s University.

Researchers have been awarded £1m to develop a ground-breaking solution using artificial intelligence that could make security scans ten times faster.

Project leader, Dr Okan Yurduseven (32) from the Institute of Electronics, Communications and Information Technology (ECIT), said his own frustration with long delays at Belfast International Airport and others inspired the work.

“If you look at the existing systems in airports, you walk through a special booth and the mechanical scan rotates around you.

“It takes several seconds just to be able to collect the data and process the image. If you consider a large volume of people doing this it can create a large backlog.

“We have to make sure the scan is done properly so they don’t miss any suspicious objects. So for big airports, the waiting time can be really heavy for this reason.”

The hope is to develop a scan which is fully electronic, rather than manually operated, which processes data from the images in real-time.

This would reduce the scan time from around ten seconds to a tenth of a second, with machine learning allowing the system to improve its performance.

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Queues in Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport (Steve Parsons/PA)

Passengers would also be spared the inconvenience of having to remove their shoes and belts.

Dr Yurduseven said the current systems in place were far from perfect in detecting dangerous objects.

An internal investigation by the Transport Security Administration (TSA) in the United States revealed undercover investigators were able to smuggle mock explosives or banned weapons through checkpoints in 95% of trials.

“Giving the dangerous world we’re living in, something hit me about this,” he said.

“So what we’re proposing is a system that actually learns. This is something that can be used in any situation with large crowds, like big events at stadiums or train stations.”

On his own airport headaches, he added: “Every time I travel for some reason I’m always chosen for additional inspection.

“It’s really frustrating because it takes a lot of time especially when you’re in a rush to reach somewhere.

“For many others, I speak to, false alarms are also such a big frustration. When we’re living in such a dangerous world with things like the Boston bombing or issues at airports, we have to do something about it.

“Personal frustration, yes, but also what’s happening around me has inspired the project.

“I’ve been to Belfast International airport many times. It’s famous for having slow security but it’s a general issue pretty much across all of the UK.”

Looking forward, it’s hoped a working prototype will be completed by the end of the research period in five years.

“After that we’re going to work with the UK Home Office to implement the technology for trials at UK airports, we’d also like to work with airports around the world.”

If all goes according to plan, Dr Yurduseven said he hoped the technology will be in Belfast International Airport and others by 2030.

Dr Yurduseven is now seeking to recruit four PhD students and four post-doctoral research associates, with hopes of growing the team in the future.

The group will work on ground-breaking radar technology, image processing algorithms and deep learning schemes.

The £1m grant from the Leverhulme Trust is a first for Northern Ireland.

Established by soap tycoon William Hesketh Lever in 1925, the Trust is one of the largest all-subject research funders in the UK and currently donates £100m each year.

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