From Airport Terminal to Main Street: Keeping Public Spaces Safe

Your position in life often helps you prepare for your next opportunity, even if it’s 180 degrees from your current position. Such was the case when Analog Devices, a leader in RF, microwave and millimeter wave (mmW) solutions for telecommunications, defense, automotive and industrial markets, started looking at new opportunities for these technologies. Analog Devices’ experience across a broad spectrum of industries naturally creates momentum to create new markets. While this started as a speculative project seeded in the Analog Garage, its future seems very promising.

At a Glance


Body scanning technology for public security


Millimeter wave (mmW) imaging and sensing


Current scanners are too large for crowded spaces, too slow for quickly scanning large crowds, and too expensive for most public venues


Re-engineer airport body scanning technology to scale for public venues such as schools, malls, stadiums, etc.

There are some technologies that have re-defined their categories and made game-changing improvements in their applications. And while these technologies generally emerge to solve a specific problem, we can suddenly envision the range of possibilities they create for similar problems in other settings. However, some technologies prove extremely difficult to scale, and without persistent ingenuity and problem-solving, never reach their full potential.

A great example of a technology in the throes of a scalability challenge is the airport security body scanning: that big capsule you step into, raise your arms, await the mechanical arm sweep around you until an agent eventually ushers you through. These scanners work on “millimeter-wave” RF technology, which produces a high resolution image of your whole body, revealing concealed objects with impressive detail. Far superior to traditional walk-through portals that simply beep if they detect something metallic, mmW scanners show a security agent exactly where to look and what to look for should they need to inspect further. So, this begs the question: if mmW body scanning has been so effective in thwarting airline security threats, why can’t we leverage it in other public spaces like schools, conference halls, malls and stadiums, where tragedies are an increasing occurrence?

A few years ago, an entrepreneurial team of technologists at Analog Devices working with University of California/ San Diego (UCSD) and Pacific Northwest Labs, started looking at how the systems used for the original airport scanners could be modified for public use. They knew the technology could save lives, but the scalability challenges needed to be solved.

It’s Never that Simple

The core challenges in scaling body scanning technology comes down to three things: size, speed, and cost. Today’s scanners are too cumbersome for venues with tight crowded spaces, too slow to process large numbers of people quickly, and too expensive to be practical for most schools, business, and venues. To work, the technology would have to be completely re-architected in a number of ways.

  • Instead of processing a single stationary person with a moving sensor, the sensors need to be stationary allowing multiple people to simply walk through at normal speed
  • Unlike high-resolution airport scanners which need to detect small items, scanners in public venues would only need to detect larger mass casualty items like firearms and explosives. This means fewer sensors can be used, which would help reduce cost
  • Fewer sensors and lower-resolution imaging requires less overall data. This speeds up processing enough for people to walk through without stopping.
  • However, fewer sensors also means they have to be very strategically positioned, the object detection and classification algorithms need to be modified, and each sensor has to process multiple signals
  • To reduce both size and cost, the partition between and integration level of the sensors and adjacent electronics needs to be carefully considered. Too much integration reduces the flexibility the systems have in adapting to different use-cases
  • Flexibility and configurability is critical to both production cost (less customization) and implementation cost.
  • Because RF regulations vary from country to country, the sensing technology must be flexible enough to accommodate a range of frequencies and sensor positioning.

It All Started in a Garage

Many exploratory R&D initiatives such as this, are nurtured in Analog Devices’ emerging technology incubator, the Analog Garage. The Analog Garage focuses on technologies the company believes will have high potential and impact, but for which a clear market and commercial opportunity might not yet exist. Internal engineering teams from across the globe can propose ideas and receive funding and resources for the challenging early-stage R&D work. The Garage also invests in high-potential startups, which receive the funding, mentoring, and engineering support to bring their ideas to market.

This particular team worked for 18 months under the support of the Analog Garage developing the necessary mmW capabilities, partnering with a prominent research university and a national laboratories. Once the technology was sufficiently demonstrated in the Garage, the team transferred the concepts to a full product development. At this point, the engagements shifted to customers where their real-world system requirements and challenges began to shape the actual product.

Always Ahead of What’s Possible

The most important breakthroughs require companies willing to tackle the toughest engineering challenges and embrace the risks associated with thinking ahead of the current market. For over 50 years, this has been an important part of Analog Devices’ mission. We call it being “ahead of what’s possible.”

So one day soon, if you’re at a ballgame and you pass swiftly through some shiny new scanning technology at the entrance, rest assured today’s most cutting-edge imaging technology is keeping you safe. And you didn’t even have to take your shoes off.

Learn more about the Analog Garage:

Analog Garage

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