L-3 Communications grew into the nation's sixth-largest defense company by selling a dizzying array of products that largely flew under the public's radar. But a machine the company makes in St. Petersburg — one that creates explicit images of traveler's bodies to find weapons under their clothes — is getting a lot of attention, not all of it favorable. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is testing L-3's "millimeter wave'' scanner at 10 major U.S. airports and will expand to 14 more, including Tampa International, by year end. The scanner portal is slightly larger than a telephone booth. Travelers step inside and lift their arms while harmless radio waves from rotating antennas bounce off them. Within seconds, a security agent in a nearby room looks over a dark-but-detailed image of their naked body.
Civil liberties groups call the process "an electronic strip search'' that violates people's privacy rights. TSA officials say no one but the agent sees the 3-D scan. Images are deleted seconds after officers determine passengers aren't carrying anything dangerous.
The agency will buy 80 more body imaging machines next year from L-3, two competitors with different technology or a combination of the three.
It's part of a wider effort by the TSA to upgrade airport checkpoints with hardware better suited to finding explosives a suicide bomber could try to smuggle onto an airliner.
"The threats have changed,'' said L-3 CEO Michael Strianese in a conference call with analysts July 24. "We have gone from metallic to liquid, and the capability of the current technology offers better detection capability than the carry-on scanners and X-ray machines sitting there today.''
In addition to ProVision, the company hopes to sell TSA a "dual-view'' X-ray that lets officers see objects inside carry-on bags from different angles. The agency also is testing a shoe-scanning machine from L-3 that could allow travelers to walk through checkpoints without removing their shoes.
Security and detection devices accounted for less than 3 percent of the company's $14-billion in sales last year. Three-quarters of L-3's business comes from a wide spectrum of U.S. military projects, largely in sophisticated communications and aviation gear.
For years, the company, headquartered in New York, has updated Air Force RC-135 spy planes that intercept voice and signal communications and pinpoint the source.
L-3 also sells simulators for pilots of unmanned Predator drones, self-destruct systems for wayward rockets and hand-held land mine detectors.
Sales of scanners at airports and other public facilities won't rival the military business but should show strong growth with Washington's heightened focus on homeland security, say company executives.
In 1998, L-3 won government certification for its eXaminer scanner, manufactured in a nondescript business park on Bryan Dairy Road in Clearwater. About 900 of the machines, which use computed tomography (CT) to find explosives in checked airline luggage, have been sold worldwide.
L-3 moved in 2003 to a new location with three acres of space at Gateway Business Park on Gandy Boulevard in St. Petersburg, just off Interstate 275. About 230 employees assemble and test eXaminer machines, X-rays for carry-on bags and cargo and millimeter wave body scanners.
The company has sold more than 100 of the body scanners, marketed under the name ProVision. They're in use at federal courthouses in northern Virginia and Colorado, the Green Zone in Baghdad and two Israeli border checkpoints. Computer chip manufacturers scan employees to prevent theft.
But the biggest potential customer now is the TSA,. Objections from groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union aside, the agency says travelers overwhelmingly prefer body scans to pat-down searches by officers.
The TSA has purchased 38 ProVision scanners at $170,000 each. L-3 has two competitors in the body scanner market, Rapiscan Systems of Torrance, Calif., and American Science & Engineering based in Billerica, Mass. They use "backscatter'' devices, selling for $100,000 apiece, that shoot low-power X-rays at travelers.
Both technologies work basically the same way. X-rays or radio waves bounce off a solid object, like metal or plastic explosives, differently than off of skin. On an image generated by the machines, patches of oddly reflected rays or waves reveal what's hidden beneath a traveler's clothes.
The TSA won't talk about pros and cons of the different machines while airport tests continue. Backscatter technology generates higher quality images, says Joshua Jabs, a security technology analyst for Roth Capital Partners LLC.
How much the images reveal has become a major issue, he says, and AS&E and Rapiscan developed better filters that show weapons without revealing intimate physical details. Their images look like the dark outline of a body.
But L-3's machine scans faster. Both backscatter machines require separate front and back scans of travelers. Antennas in the ProVision portal revolve around a subject to create a 3-D image in seconds.
If the TSA wants to check large numbers of people selected randomly — not just passengers who first set off a metal detector or other alarm — L-3's machine would have a big advantage.
"As of now,'' says Jabs, "L-3 stands to benefit more than the others.''
Information from the Boston Globe was used in this report. Steve Huettel can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3384.