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Demand soars for airport body scanners built by L-3 in St. Petersburg

Hours after news broke about the Nigerian man who tried to bomb a Northwest Airlines flight approaching Detroit last Christmas, Bob Lancaster got a call at home from his bosses at L-3 Communications' corporate headquarters.

Their question: How fast could he ramp up production of airport body scanners — the high-tech machines designed to spot weapons under a traveler's clothes — at the company's plant at Gateway Business Park in St. Petersburg?

He was on the phone all day, talking with executives at L-3 and ordering production reports from the plant. "There was a lot going on," said Lancaster, the facility's operations director.

Within days, politicians such as U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., were on television demanding increased use of airport body scanners. President Barack Obama pledged that increased aviation security measures were on the way soon.

L-3 had sold just over 200 body scanners worldwide under the name ProVision by the end of 2009.

So far this year, the company landed a contract in May to deliver 202 machines, valued at $31.7 million, to the Transportation Security Administration. The Canadian government bought 44. Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, where the attempted bomber passed through a metal detector and boarded the Northwest plane with explosives in his underwear, purchased 66 machines.

L-3 CEO Michael Strianese said in a conference call with analysts that the business is set to take off as body scanners go into more airports and travelers become more comfortable with them.

"I expect there to be at least a market for 2,000 of these systems, if not more," he said. "And you could define that market as every lane in every terminal in every airport. It's a big market, and we are optimistic that this will start to pick up speed as we go."

The increase in orders hasn't set off a hiring binge at the local plant, where technicians load software, assemble and test the machines. L-3 added a handful of new technicians and recently began a night shift, Lancaster said.

But total employment remains about 230, he said, with workers shifting to ProVision orders as other product lines slow down. The whole process, from receiving an order to assembling, testing and shipping a unit, takes two weeks, the company said.

The work goes on in a 130,000-square-foot building with "L-3 Communications" in huge letters visible to 150,000 drivers whizzing by on Interstate 275 each day. For a recent tour, visitors had to show proof of U.S. citizenship and surrender cell phones to prevent unauthorized photos.

Technicians put together machines in a vast ''open plant area" with a cement floor and shelves of electronics and computer parts that nearly touch the 28-foot-high ceiling. The assembly line is a lean operation. Workers connect their components and slide the machine to the next work station.

An infant's toy — a plastic post with colored rings — sits atop a row of X-ray machines so the next shift knows the status of each one. A blue ring indicates it's ready for the next step, yellow means hold for more instructions, red signals a problem.

L-3 knows about cranking out a hot product. It won government certification in 1998 for a scanner that uses computed tomography (CT) to find explosives in checked airline luggage. Demand spiked after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The company now sells four TSA-certified models of the eXaminer, including one that can scan up to 1,200 bags an hour on a belt than runs continuously. (Luggage that sets off an alarm is kicked off and inspected by an officer.)

Workers at the local plant also produce X-ray scanners for inspecting carry-on bags at airport security checkpoints. The most advanced models take views from two or three directions and alert the officers watching the image by surrounding suspicious items with a red box.

But none of L-3's products attracts anything like the public attention focused on the ProVision body scanner.

The machine, which looks like an oversized phone booth, uses high-frequency radio waves to create a 3-D image of a traveler's body. The only other body scanner approved by the TSA, made by Rapiscan Systems of Torrance, Calif., uses backscatter X-rays to make a two-dimensional body image for screening.

Both systems can find weapons invisible to metal detectors, such as liquid, plastic or powdered explosives. It isn't clear if the scanners would have picked up the explosive hidden on Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Government Accountability Office reported in March.

Civil liberties groups call the body scans a "digital strip search," a phrase that makes the TSA and manufacturers livid. Some images circulated on the Web show clear outlines of breasts and genitalia. Those images came from tests of backscatter machines before recent filters were used, the TSA said.

Both the L-3 and Rapiscan machines blur out faces and private parts of passengers. "You cannot tell who the individual is,'' says Thomas Ripp, president of L-3 Security & Detection Systems. "It is not graphic or pornographic."

Images are viewed by TSA officers in rooms away from subjects being scanned. The machines can't store or transmit images, which are deleted automatically once officers clear them, the TSA said.

An advanced model of the machine doesn't display a body image. The ProVision ATD identifies a possible weapon and displays the location on a "generic mannequin" — Ripp calls it a Gumby — that resembles a human outline.

Besides additional privacy protection, the ADT takes fewer people to operate, Ripp said. A display appears on a screen attached to the scanner. So, the same officer directing passengers at the machine could also check for threats, eliminating the need for an officer checking images in another location.

The security and detection division is a small cog in L-3, the world's sixth-largest defense contractor with more than 66,000 employees and worldwide revenue of $15.6 billion worldwide last year.

Despite its high-profile product, L-3 doesn't get much recognition outside the industry. Employees say friends often think they work for Level 3 Communications, the communications and information services giant.

"But everybody here's tuned into" the security implications of their jobs, Lancaster said. "There's a significant pride factor. It's a cool place."

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

Demand soars for airport body scanners built by L-3 in St. Petersburg 06/25/10 [Last modified: Monday, June 28, 2010 5:28pm]
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