sealPurdue News

May 15, 2003

Purdue Airport uses technology designed never to forget a face

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Airline passengers will be able to have more confidence in the identities of commercial pilots once technology at Purdue University is perfected.

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Beginning this month, the country's first long-term pilot face-recognition system will be tested at the university's student flight operations building. A group of flight students from the Department of Aviation Technology have volunteered to test the system by having their identities recorded along with their image.

As these students step through the security checkpoint, a tiny camera will transmit their images to an on-campus computer network. The system will measure facial features and compare them with records in a database. If a person's identity does not match up with his or her previously recorded image, an alarm will sound to alert security. Purdue researchers will use the results to further fine-tune the system.

"The technology provides a way to protect pilots and the general aviation community," said Stephen Elliott, assistant professor of industrial technology in Purdue's School of Technology and director of the project. "Face recognition at the flight operations center will enable Purdue students to see firsthand how the technology works and allow researchers to measure the performance of the system."

The system makes use of a young science called biometrics, the measurement of the human body. Many government officials believe biometrics technology is one of the most promising ways to improve security in fields ranging from transportation to banking.

"Fingerprinting is a type of biometrics," Elliott said. "But instead of identifying people long after they are gone by a smudge of fingerprint left on a windowpane, we want to measure their facial features and identify them instantly."

Student pilots' faces will be measured by face recognition software donated by the Acsys Biometrics Corp. of Burlington, Ontario. Acsys has tested the software on a smaller scale at airports in Rochester, N.Y., and Thunder Bay, Ontario, but the Purdue project represents the next step in testing the software while advancing the field of biometrics.

"Biometrics is an emerging technology, and it's important to test this kind of system out over the long term in a working airport," said Barry Hodge, president of Acsys. "Purdue is an ideal location for that sort of testing because it has both a relatively small number of passengers traveling on a given day and a topnotch group of biometrics specialists. The students under Dr. Elliott will be among the country's next generation of security experts, and it will be important to have their input on improving the performance of the software."

Elliott agreed, saying the campus is an ideal first location for technology that could eventually improve national security.

"This will be a real-world check on biometrics technology," he said. "We want to train students not only in the principles of biometrics, but also how to handle the problems that will inevitably arise when systems like these are used in different environments. A 'street setting' like Purdue Airport will bring those problems to light."

One such challenge for Elliott and his cadre of graduate students will be to help the system recognize people when their appearance is altered in some subtle way – by wearing glasses or growing facial hair, for example.

"People change over time," Elliott said. "You will still recognize a long-lost friend because your brain can compensate for such changes, but a computer can still get thrown off. For example, our database has stored more images of me than perhaps anyone else, but a few weeks ago the system didn't recognize me because I had a ball cap on. So we need to improve that aspect of the software before we can use it in larger airports."

Another ongoing effort will be to improve the accuracy and speed of the system so it can accommodate many thousands of passenger profiles instead of the hundreds it can now handle.

"If we put our current system into, say, Chicago's O'Hare Airport, the sheer number of travelers would overwhelm the computers' ability to search through the database quickly enough," Elliott said. "We are also up against people who will not necessarily look straight at the scanner as they walk through security, so we have to teach the system how to work successfully with lots of facial angles and limited information. It will be challenging to get there, but the limited traffic at Purdue Airport makes it a perfect stepping stone between the lab and a major commercial airport."

The project also aims to expand biometrics technology's use into banking environments, where identity theft is a constant threat to your savings account, and to bars, where low-light conditions make it difficult to check IDs and enforce age limit laws.

"Several of our students will be writing graduate theses on these topics," Elliott said. "A college town like West Lafayette has lots of bars and banks, so that's another advantage of having this program here."

Purdue has one of the country's only university programs in biometrics. Students can receive training in such areas as biometric devices, development of device testing protocols, research in biometric authentication and experimental design. More information on the program is available online.

Purdue University Airport, which opened in 1930, was the nation's first to be owned by a state-run university. Paved runways were added in the late 1930s, and student flight instruction began in 1938. Today the airport encompasses more than 500 acres southwest of campus. It is the second busiest airport in Indiana, with approximately 150,000 takeoffs and landings yearly, including commercial, private and university usage. The airport offers daily round trips to St. Louis on American Airlines.

Writer: Chad Boutin, (765) 494-2081,

Sources: Stephen J. Elliott, (765) 496-2971,

Barry Hodge, (905) 634-0447,

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;


Purdue University undergraduate student Rich Skinner's facial features are scanned by the camera, which graduate student Eric Kukula (center) adjusts. Professor Stephen Elliott (at right) makes adjustments to the computer system that will confirm Skinner's identity by comparing his face to previously scanned images stored in a database. This face-scanning biometrics technology at Purdue Airport will measure the faces of student pilots departing from the terminal, a first step toward refining it for use on passengers in larger airports. (Purdue News Service photo/David Umberger)

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