The Truth Is in The Eye of the Flyer

New iris scanning technology cuts airport wait times from 49 minutes to 22 seconds | “It’s like putting on a pair of glasses that is always adjusting”

Ashlee Vance


If there’s such a thing as frequent-flyer porn, it might be The Future Passenger Experience, a recently issued white paper from AOptix Technologies. The 10-page document presents an idyllic future in which a traveler shows up at an airport, tosses his bag on a conveyor belt, breezes through security, and boards a plane without ever dealing with another human or handling any documents. This is all accomplished with new face and iris scanners that can quickly identify a person — even a fidgety one — and automatically approve his progression through the normally onerous process of getting on an airplane.

AOptix, a 100-person outfit based in Silicon Valley, says it has the technology to pull off this vision of the future. The company has developed a scanner that can snap an iris from a few feet away in about a second. “It has to be easy enough for an 80-year-old Tibetan grandmother who has never flown before,” says Dean Senner, chief executive officer of AOptix. Senner is championing the idea that by 2020 the vast majority of people will be processed automatically at airports by matching iris scans against databases.

Movements to implement biometric scanning at airports gain steam every few years, but iris scanners have been too slow and inconsistent for heavy use. Privacy experts are also concerned about an iris database being hacked and someone having their biometric identity stolen. Still, some big-name investors, including venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, have bet that AOptix has finally overcome those problems. On Aug. 23 the company was set to announce it has raised $42 million in its latest funding round, bringing its investment total to $123 million.

With conventional iris scanners, the subject usually needs to be about a foot from the machine and remain still while the scan takes place. AOptix makes a tower roughly the height of an average person that can take a scan from about eight feet away. “They’ve become quite famous for making it so that people can just walk up and do the scan without needing to be precisely placed in front of a machine,” says Patrick Grother, a computer scientist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. It takes around eight seconds to register both eyes in a database on a passenger’s first scan and just a second or two in subsequent scans to recognize them.

In AOptix’s Future Passenger Experience scenario, flyers will walk up to a scanner when they arrive at the airport to verify their identity. Then, if they’ve registered before and been prescreened, they can go through a fast lane at security. Finally, they’ll walk up to an e-gate, which will open up and let them board a plane after one last iris and face scan verifies their identity.

AOptix was founded in 2000 by two astronomers from the University of Hawaii who worked with deep space telescopes atop the islands’ mountains. The researchers hit on new techniques for correcting the ways in which the atmosphere distorts the starlight reaching their telescopes.

Over time, their insights evolved into the basis for a long-range, wireless communication system. Originally, the basic technology worked like this: An operator fired a laser at a target equipped with a malleable lens and some software. The software then performed about 30,000 calculations per second to determine how the atmosphere was affecting the laser beam. The lens, about the size of a 50¢ piece, changed its shape 1,000 times per second via electrical impulses to clean up the signal. “It’s like putting on a pair of glasses that are always adjusting,” says Senner. The end result is the ability to send a huge amount of information over a reliable wireless connection.

At first, AOptix had difficulty convincing would-be clients that you could send a high-bandwidth laser beam hundreds of kilometers. Eventually the company won over the Pentagon, which has been using the technology for years to shuttle information to ground stations from drones and planes without having to land them and pull out their hard drives.

While the military business was profitable, the market was small. So in 2005, AOptix hired Senner — a Lockheed Martin veteran who later ran Thales Navigation, the maker of Magellan GPS devices — to expand the business.

Early in his tenure at AOptix, Senner sequestered his top executives and engineers in a hotel suite to dream up novel uses of the technology. The results of that brainstorming have started to appear over the past couple of years. One is a suitcase-size system that wireless carriers can use to link cellular transmission towers when fiber-optic cable is impractical. Senner also sees a market for this technology among high-speed financial traders who will pay big bucks for millisecond advantages. “The shortest path between a trader’s building in New Jersey and an exchange in New York could be a wireless signal,” he says.

AOptix has trials under way for other ventures, but to date its security products have shown the most promise. Its InSight towers, which perform both facial and iris scans, sell for $40,000 each. In Qatar, 80 of the towers are in use at all the air, land, and sea borders to compare people’s eyes against a growing database of scans. Meanwhile, the Dubai International Airport has been running trials of the technology at a terminal that handles about 40 million people per year. It has cut immigration wait times from an average of 49 minutes for most travelers down to 22 seconds. Gatwick Airport uses the towers as well to confirm the identity of people moving between the international and domestic terminals.

Despite growing acceptance, biometric scans still present serious concerns. Senner says AOptix’s technology makes its growing line of equipment tough for hackers to crack. In a demonstration at its Silicon Valley headquarters on Aug. 10, he showed off its latest device, a case that slips around a smartphone and makes it possible to record iris scans, photos, fingerprints, and voice patterns. In a test run, the device took all of my identification vitals in a couple of minutes, a feat equal parts impressive and disconcerting.

Ann Cavoukian, information and privacy commissioner of Ontario, says she has been discouraged by the company’s tendency to avoid discussing privacy issues head-on. “What bothers me is there is just no mention of privacy issues anywhere on their website. Privacy does not exist for them.”

The bottom line AOptix has transformed its telescope technology into advanced biometric scanners and other potentially lucrative applications.


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