A technology company working with Vulcan Inc. is seeking to install and test an AI-powered scanning system outside the company’s Seattle headquarters building, capable of sensing whether people walking by are concealing weapons or devices from a distance of up to 80 feet.
According to a document filed with the Federal Communications Commission, the scanner would be located at the entrance to Vulcan’s HQ at 505 5th Avenue South, in a position that would allow it to scan people walking through the plaza above the International District light rail station in Seattle.
Vulcan is the holding company for many of the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s ventures. The FCC document notes that Vulcan is interested in whether the scanner could be used to protect schools, and that Vulcan is considering investing in the scanner’s manufacturer, a British company called Radio Physics Solutions (RPS). RPS filed the FCC application.
“The proposed operations will take place intermittently,” wrote RPS in the FCC filing. “The screening results will be presented to staff on a real-time basis, allowing them to determine the effectiveness of the technology, which will allow them to evaluate their investment.”
The scanner — called MiRTLE, for Millimetre-Wave Radar Threat Level Evaluation — has already been tested inside Vulcan’s parking garage in late November, where it was used to scan a single Vulcan employee, according to other FCC documents, and confirmed by Vulcan. The device can conduct approximately 3000 scans per second, and the new FCC application requests permission to conduct tests over a period of 12 months.
It’s not clear how often the scanner will be active, or the extent to which it will scan people walking by. However, the FCC document contains an image of the plaza with the caption, “Objective: Have surveillance and detection system covering the plaza in front of the building. Get alert as early as possible before suspicious person/threat enters building.”
The MiRTLE scanner uses millimeter-wave radio signals similar to those found in airport security scanners. Like them, the RPS device can penetrate clothing to identity objects that traditional metal detectors might miss, such as plastic explosives or 3D-printed weapons.
By sweeping a wide range of frequencies and using artificial intelligence to interpret the results, the MiRTLE scanners can also operate at long distances and on subjects that are moving. RPS claims the device can even distinguish between a hidden gun and a similarly-sized phone or camera.
RPS has previously demonstrated its scanners to the Transportation Security Administration and at the entrance to a high school in Texas.
“Vulcan is constantly exploring new technologies and data-driven solutions to make the world a better place,” a spokesperson told GeekWire.
Millimeter wave scanners are not completely uncontroversial, as the high frequency radiation can theoretically heat up skin and cause mild tissue damage. An airport scan lasting just a few seconds reaches only about one tenth of the limit recommended by the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP).
If RPS scans members of the public, however, exposure would not be not controlled in the same way. Individuals sitting on benches or taking cigarette breaks might remain within the test area for many minutes, and thus be exposed to potentially millions of scans.
Gary King, CEO of RPS, told GeekWire: “[We] take safety very seriously, both in design and use of the product. [Our] safety calculations were presented to the FCC, which was completely satisfied with the safety of MiRTLE. Someone eating lunch in the plaza is very safe.”
King would not confirm the product’s technical performance but GeekWire’s calculations suggest that standing as close as 15 feet to the scanner for up to 45 minutes would not breach ICNIRP’s guidelines.
Millimeter-wave scanners have also raised privacy concerns. Airport scanners can produce realistic images of people’s body profiles beneath their clothes, as well as reveal medical devices or prostheses. Scanners in airports now typically mask specific body parts, and display only generic body images.
But MiRTLE works in a different way, the company says, without creating images or videos of the bodies it scans. “This system does not invade privacy,” says King. “The product does not and cannot image people.”
While RPS’s latest application is still pending approval by the FCC, the agency has permitted all of RPS’s previous tests in the US.