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BWH researchers are finding ways to make airplane travel safer by improving baggage screening, thanks to a $460,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
The grant was awarded to the BWH Visual Attention Lab, which specializes in human vision and visual attention. Its specific focus is on the screening of checked baggage. Typically, Explosive Detection Systems (EDS) use CT imaging to identify suspect objects in bags. When the machine detects a suspicious object, it highlights that object in the image presented to the human screener. The screener then needs to categorize that object as either harmless or as requiring hand inspection.
“If you hand inspect everything that the machine flags, air travel would move at a snail’s pace,” said Jeremy Wolfe, PhD, director of the Visual Attention Lab. “Of course, if you miss a real threat, the consequences could be catastrophic. So this is a tough and complex problem.”
The Department of Homeland Security’s Transportation Security Lab continuously evaluates new EDS technologies for airport checked-baggage security. The purpose of the grant is to develop an improved process by which the Transportation Security Lab can evaluate the usefulness of new EDS visual displays.
“This requires us to better understand the visual factors that determine screener performance in this screening task,” Wolfe said. “The outcome will be a more effective and efficient evaluation standard for all future EDS displays.”
Since shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, the Visual Attention Lab, part of the BWH Center for Ophthalmic Research, has been working with the Human Factors Program at the Department of Homeland Security’s Transportation Security Lab in Atlantic City to better understand how humans perform these difficult search tasks and to offer suggestions about improving performance.
“Our previous work has focused on screening of carry-on luggage at passenger check points,” Wolfe said. “Screeners are looking for very rare items, and we have found that rarity, by itself, makes humans more likely to miss a target. You could say, ‘If you don’t find it often, you often don’t find it’.”
Wolfe and several other authors last year published their findings: Wolfe, J. M., Horowitz, T. S., & Kenner, N. M. Cognitive Psychology: Rare items often missed in visual searches. Nature, 2005 May 26; 435 (7041): 439-440.