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Local project could make air travel safer

In a cavernous former nuclear weapons parts factory off Bryan Dairy Road, Patricia Krall and a small team of researchers are trying to figure out a better way to keep bombs off airplanes.

While the world is scrambling to make airports safer after the crash of TWA Flight 800, Krall and other researchers at Lockheed Martin Specialty Components are building a sophisticated X-ray machine designed to detect explosives concealed in luggage checked on airplanes.

Partly with expediency and cost in mind, Federal Aviation Administration officials have so far approved only one type of X-ray machine, created by InVision Technologies of California, for screening baggage checked on planes. Only two airports _ Atlanta's Hartsfield International and San Francisco International _ currently have the machines. (Carry-on luggage is checked by X-ray machines at all major airports).

But in February, Lockheed Martin won an $8.5-million grant from the FAA to develop a new breed of X-ray machine designed to rapidly and effectively scan checked luggage for explosives. Lockheed Martin won the grant after nearly three years of study that stemmed from its work making nuclear bomb triggers at its plant in Largo.

"Basically, our system utilizes technology similar to CAT scans in hospitals," said Krall, who is program manager for Lockheed Martin's so-called "eXaminer 3dx 6000" system. "CAT scan (machines) put things in three-dimensional perspectives. Now, we're going to be able to look at luggage with the same 3-D perspectives."

Lockheed Martin expects to begin testing the new X-ray system at the FAA Technical Center in Atlantic City, N.J., sometime next year. If it gets FAA approval, the system could be installed for testing in airports soon after.

It won't be cheap.

Currently, InVision's systems run about $1-million each. Krall said Lockheed Martin's system will probably carry a similar price tag.

Lockheed Martin's machine, however, should be faster and more effective than InVision's, according to Krall.

InVision's system, called the CTX 5000, has suffered from problems with false alarms. It also is relatively slow, inspecting about 260 bags per hour. The two shortfalls _ along with the high costs, which are borne by airline companies _ have kept the machines out of other airports.

Lockheed Martin's system is designed to handle an average of 675 bags per hour and have false alarm levels lower than FAA standards, Krall said.

Moves by the Clinton administration to beef up airport security in the wake of the TWA crash could clearly benefit Lockheed Martin and its new system.

A commission on airport safety headed by Vice President Al Gore is planning to review airline procedures and determine how to install explosive detection systems like InVision's and Lockheed Martin's at airports nationwide.

"Of course the FAA makes the decisions, but it certainly appears that implementation of systems like these are going to be required at airports in the future," said Victoria Pannell, spokeswoman for the Airports Council International, a trade group for airport owners in Washington, D.C.

InVision is already benefiting from the talk. Friday, stock in the Foster City, Calif.-based company soared $5.25 per share to $25.50 after Transportation Secretary Federico Pena announced that the Gore commission would look into systems at the nation's airports. (Lockheed Martin stock was up $1.12{ to $81.75, but mainly on news that the company was selling about 81 percent of its construction materials subsidiary.)

Currently, only about 10 Lockheed Martin researchers in Largo work on the project, along with about 40 other researchers who work for subcontractors in Boston and Chicago.

But the project "is one of the most important projects we have here," said Shirley Cheatham, a spokeswoman for the company in Largo.

Lockheed Martin is one of a number of defense contractors trying to find new commercial work after downsizing in the defense industry. In Largo, the company has been struggling to replace Department of Energy projects that ended several years ago.

"They (Lockheed Martin) are looking at anything and everything where they can apply their current technology," said Paul Nisbet, an analyst with stockbrokerage JSA Research Inc. in Newport, R.I. "It's just one of many things they're looking at."

Most of the 600 people who currently work at the Largo plant are involved with cleaning up the factory and its equipment. But in September 1997, when Lockheed Martin's current contract with the Energy Department expires, they'll be out of work.

Pinellas County purchased the 700,000-square-foot plant from the Energy Department in 1994 and has slowly been converting it into office and manufacturing space for a myriad of businesses.

Few jobs for Lockheed Martin employees have been created by the companies, however.