Millimetre microwave (MMW) scanner technology uses ultra wide band (UWB) microwaves along with artificial intelligence that scans a human body to detect concealed weapons, such as knives, guns and bomb vests. We commonly know this type of technology in the form of TSA scanners at airports which have been used since 2010. They generally use the 24-30 GHz range.
However, a higher electro magnetic frequency (EMF) band width, 75-110 GHz, has been found to give more powerful results, being able to extend the scanning area significantly up to 50 feet, with no need for a ‘gate’ for individuals to walk through. This frequency range is known as the W bandwidth, in the ‘Extremely High Frequency’ range.
This UWB ‘extremely high frequency’ scanning technology was developed in the UK at Manchester Metropolitan University, at the request of the UK Home Office and London Metropolitan Police. The concept then morphed into a commercial product by the University and subsequently a start up company, incorporated in 2008, Radio Physics Solutions (RPS).
More details on the development of the RPS MiRTLE technology and the company can be found in the article ‘Millimetre Microwaves: Artificial Intelligence scanning us for weapons” from May 2016. Since that article there has been little to no information in the public domain pertaining to this scanning technology – that was until recently.
In December 2018, Mark Harris a freelance journalist, wrote an article about RPS’s intentions to test their MMW scanner outside Vulcan Inc.’s offices in Seattle. RPS was granted a 12 month period to use the 77-86 GHz spectrum from the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) from the 6th February 2019 until the 1st February 2020. RPS submitted ‘Explanation of Experiment’ to the FCC can be read here and an interview with Mark can be heard on the Seattle radio station, KUOW, in a succinct 10 minute resume of his article.
In his article there was also mention of RPS MiRTLE weapons scanner being tested in a school in Texas. When the company, RPS, first started one of their main intended markets was education. Demand for this in the UK would be limited due to the lack of attacks in schools but the US school market is, unfortunately, more receptive to this product.
Keeping children safe in schools is absolutely paramount. Schools should be a safe, nurturing, relaxed environment for students and as a parent I can completely see the unique selling point for this technology. It can, potentially, identify someone entering a school building carrying a weapon. This technology will keep my kids safe – or would it? I wonder… because what this technology cannot do is identify the intent of the person with the ‘weapon’.
Perhaps a resident police officers will set off the alarm and create an unwarranted alert. Maybe a parent carrying a small firearm (as is a legal right to do so in Texas) may also set off an alert, a workman or groundsman with a tool that may be recognised as a knife? The intent behind this ‘weapon’ carrying is benign – yet could have far reaching consequences for the individual or the school. Is there any actual research to see what proportion of people entering a school, with no intent to harm, have such objects on them?
With groundbreaking technologies such as this, what should be the reaction applied to such a person entering a school building that triggers an ‘threat’ alert?
Does the school go into immediate lockdown? Is it fair to assume that that person’s intent to carry such ‘weapon’ is nefarious? Maybe swat teams will deployed to apprehend the person? What if there is no lockdown and the person’s intent is nefarious? Who would be to blame?
Another possible unintended consequence of having weapon scanning technology in a school is that the problem is pushed elsewhere – perhaps that is no bad thing. What else could be targeted – a school bus, an outdoor sports event, a school field trip? The MiRTLE system set up is possible at remote locations as this particular microwave scanning is operated by small mobile units, ready to operate in 15 minutes.
The question then arises of where does the school’s boundary end? What happens if an unsuspecting member of the public is included in the off-site sweep scans, and triggers an alert? This super-heightened awareness of the environment, presumably taking at least one member of staff to operate, would also bring with it a constant state of alert to the school or outside group.
If a school shooting occurs it is not only the shooter that has a gun. Multiple alerts would be triggered by various law enforcement personal and may confuse the system and then the situation.
The reasoning to do this experimental testing in a schools may be obvious but what this technology cannot do is gauge intent. And this clearly is an aspect to this technology that must be considered. All these issues apply to the 12 month test period Vulcan have planned for the plaza/public space outside their head quarters in Seattle ending in February 2020.
Data is data – what exactly is done with that data is the unknown element here.
Humans are flawed. There are a few of us that do create problems with random, rash, aggressive behaviours. Technology will not fix that.
Information from a Public Information Act response from Cypress Fairbanks Independent School District indicated that the test was going to run from Monday November 19th through to Wednesday November 21st 2018.
RPS’s ‘Explanation of Experiment’ to the FCC detailed that the scanners were to be deployed outside the front entrance. However, the school decided to also use the scanners on the children in the cafeteria, where the majority of students would be static and eating.
It was decided by the school not to inform students and parents that they were microwave scanning the kids for weapons, in much the same instance if they were deploying metal detectors – no forewarning.
One important difference between the two technologies is that metal detectors are in plain sight. Microwave scanning children from a distance is not as apparent, if at all visually obvious, depending on where the MiRTLE ‘threat detectors’ were positioned. It could be suggested that there is a subtle change of intent here by the school and RPS as this technology is designed to be discreet.
However, as can be seen from the above extract from the PIA response, the scanner was not able to be fully used due to damage in transit. The PIA response goes on to day that a “new device is scheduled for shipment, we will get back in contact with you to coordinate again with you“, from a school email dated Tuesday 20th November 2018. Apart from another email dated 26th November, from within the school acknowledging receipt of this email, that is it – no more discussion on the matter.
And there oddly ends all correspondence on this matter, as detailed in the PIA response. As it is illogical for there to be no more correspondence, when all communication on this was requested in the PIA, an appeal to the content of the PIA response will be looked at to determine when the scanners were used and the outcome of the ‘experiment’.
When more information is available on this it will be published here.
UPDATE: 18th November 2019.
Cypress Fairbanks Independent School District was contacted to confirm that there was no further developments or correspondence on this and their reply, by email dated 15th February 2019, was:
“There has been no further correspondence on this matter since the last email from M* ****** on November 26th, 2018. We have never received any further correspondence to reschedule the test when a new unit was available to be delivered for a follow-up demonstration. At this time, we have decided that if they did contact us again to reschedule a demonstration, that we will pass on the opportunity. This new technology device appears to be in its early stage of development and we have no further interest in pursuing this type of security technology implementation in our district at this time.”
(All Radio Physics Solutions FCC submissions can be found here).