A defense contractor that builds body-imaging scanners at a St. Petersburg plant is positioned to sell Uncle Sam hundreds of machines for U.S. airports after the Christmas bomb scare on a Northwest Airlines flight approaching Detroit.
The Transportation Security Administration last week awarded a contract to L-3 Communications to buy up to $165 million worth of its ProVision scanners. The devices scan air travelers' bodies and generate X-ray-like images that can reveal weapons hidden under clothes.
Security experts, members of Congress and travel industry groups have called for stepping up deployment of the machines since a 23-year-old Nigerian man hid an explosive and other components in his underwear and smuggled them onto the plane.
Forty of the L-3 scanners are in use at 19 U.S. airports, including Tampa International. L-3 and Rapiscan Systems of Torrance, Calif., produce the only whole-body imagers approved for passenger screening by the TSA.
The contract last week isn't an order for L-3 scanners, said Lauren Gaches, a TSA spokeswoman. It identified funding sources and set a ceiling for purchasing an unspecified number of units over an indefinite time period.
The TSA recently said it ordered 150 Rapiscan scanners to be installed this year and had funding for an additional 300 from an unidentified source.
A huge defense contractor, L-3 set up shop in a nondescript business park on Bryan Dairy Road in Clearwater to enter the airport security business. In 1998, the company won government certification for its eXaminer luggage scanner.
In 2003, L-3 moved to a new location at Gateway Business Park on Gandy Boulevard in St. Petersburg. About 190 employees assemble and test eXaminer machines, X-ray devices for carry-on bags and the body scanners.
Five other companies are trying to win TSA certification for their body scanners, said Harry Glenn, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores.
"I think (TSA officials) are trying to figure out how much capacity these companies have to produce them," he said.
Steve Huettel can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3384.