CLEARWATER — Jim Ellis entered Ruth Eckerd Hall without emptying his pockets. He didn’t have to. When he stepped through a paddock-like security gate, a little blue circle lit up, prompting a guard to ask what was in his left pocket.
“Just car keys and some cash,” said Ellis, a Maryland resident who was there to watch a concert with some Pinellas County friends. The guard gave him a quick wand and sent him on with a smile.
In the future, that second check might not be necessary. Ticketholders like Ellis should be able to walk straight into concert venues without emptying their pockets or even slowing their gait — a significant change from security measures in place today.
That’s the goal of Xonar Technologies, a Largo startup that’s been testing and tinkering with its venue security system at Westfield Countryside, Spectrum Field, Madeira Beach City Hall and, most recently, Ruth Eckerd Hall.
The system, dubbed XonarSafe, uses ultra-wideband radar scanners to determine the likelihood that a person is carrying a weapon. On a technical level, the process is similar to a car’s backup detection sensors, or to electrocardiograms that ping back whether a heart is healthy or unhealthy. Xonar’s artificial intelligence program reads the waveform that bounces off patrons and uses what it learns to refine future scans.
The goal is a less obtrusive security system, one that can detect weapons as easily as metal detectors, but might not require fans to queue up, slow down and open their purses or pockets.
“That’s exactly what we want people to think, is that we’re not being obtrusive,” said Xonar Chief Technology Officer Jeff McFadden. “We’re not poking around in your stuff. You don’t even realize that you’ve walked through a security system.”
XonarSafe is meant to be automated, less reliant on human surveillance, yet adaptable. During the coronavirus pandemic, Xonar added thermal imaging cameras that can determine whether a patron has a fever, which meant no more temperature checks at the door.
“The big advantage is it’s contactless,” McFadden said. “You don’t have to go through everybody’s bag, so you don’t have to change gloves all the time. If you were to search every bag, you’d have to change gloves every time you do it; otherwise, you’re potentially contaminating everybody’s stuff.”
McFadden has worked for wireless companies and tech startups and, before co-founding Xonar two years ago, he taught mechanical engineering technology at Bluefield State College in West Virginia. He was exploring how ultra-wideband radar could be applied toward personal security — from locating buried explosive devices to determining whether an elderly person had fallen at home — when an investor urged him to consider building security.
The company settled on Largo as a base because of McFadden’s familiarity with the area — his two grown children live in Tampa — and its proximity to the University of South Florida.
While most of its funding has come from a small core of private investors, Xonar received a $30,000 grant from the Florida High Tech Corridor Council, a regional tech development organization of which USF is a cornerstone member. The company worked with researchers and graduate students at USF’s Center for Wireless and Microwave Information Systems to develop beta versions of XonarSafe. Should the partnership keep going, the next phase is creating versions that can be more precise and compact.
“We’re anticipating growing,” McFadden said, “so we need to have people that can join our company. That’s a great place to find them, and it’s good for the school, because they get some real-world applications to work on.”
The global security screening market is expected to hit $9.1 billion by 2025, according to one recent study, and more companies are integrating technology like A.I. and thermal cameras. (The Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, for example, has similar temperature checks at their doors.) Xonar believes its embrace of ultra-wideband radar will set it apart.
Xonar started testing at Ruth Eckerd Hall last fall, and continued tinkering during the pandemic lockdown. In some ways, the concert industry’s shutdown was beneficial, as it gave the company time to integrate temperature checks — an optional feature that became a necessity virtually overnight.
“They said they have that capability; we said we absolutely want it,” said Jon Walser, Ruth Eckerd Hall’s head of safety and security. “A lot of that stuff, obviously, is on backorder. They were able to get it. ... They really want to see this as a good partnership.”
McFadden has been pitching the tech to other local facilities, some of which may test XonarSafe as early as August. For now, it’s only at Ruth Eckerd Hall — out of the beta phase, but still very much learning.
As patrons passed through the gate before a recent socially distanced concert, the system lit up with alerts that amounted to false positives — a woman’s swinging purse, an unidentified item in a man’s pocket, and so forth. Guards checked those patrons with handheld wands. Even when XonarSafe technology is ready for the marketplace, this is similar to how it might work.
“Historically, a lot of security stuff had a lot of human interpretation — and still does, in some cases, like radar at the airport,” McFadden said. “So we really tried to stay away from any interpretation (of the readings). Anything we give you is a binary: ‘Here’s the issue, deal with it with your security protocols.' ”
After the show, Xonar workers took the data to their lab for refinement. The next time around, the system will have a little bit better understanding that cash and keys aren’t weapons.
“The system learns pretty quickly,” McFadden said. “So we’ll take that data and use it.”