REU Students Test Walkthrough Metal Detectors Used at Sports Stadiums

Their Findings Could Help Prevent Terrorist Attacks at Sports Stadiums and Other Large Entertainment Venues

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Students and their mentor Christie Nelson assemble a walkthrough metal detector outside CCICADA’s offices at Rutgers University.
Photo credit: James Wojtowicz, CCICADA

The work of two students who tested walk-through metal detectors with a homeland-security research center at Rutgers University could help thwart future terror attacks on US sports stadiums.

As part of CCICADA’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU), the students arrived in early June 2015 at Rutgers University, where their research project was to design, run and report on experiments designed to improve the efficiency of walkthrough metal detectors (WTMDs) and to better understand how they work at live sporting events. The students worked under the direction of student mentor and CCICADA researcher Dr. Christie Nelson.

Undergraduate students Vijay Chaudhary of Howard University and John Edman of Wheaton College found that the accuracy of the machines depends a great deal on the height of the individual walking through, how fast they walked, and the position of the metal object being detected.


An REU student tapes an object to his leg in preparation for a test of the walkthrough metal detector.
Photo credit: James Wojtowicz, CCICADA

“The results of this work demonstrate how undergraduates can make real contributions to homeland security research,” said CCICADA Director Dr. Fred Roberts. “The DHS Office of University Programs wants CCICADA and other university centers of excellence to help develop the homeland security workforce of the future. The REU program is a good example of how we are doing this.”

Because of the project’s success, Nelson and another CCICADA researcher involved in the project, Dr. Paul Kantor, have been invited to the National Institute for Standards & Technology as guest researchers to continue their experiments with performance of WTMDs, which are growing in popularity among stadium managers. They expect to be invited to help update national standards for WTMDs the next time these standards are updated. Rutgers University police, who donated two walkthrough metal detectors to the project, were “very impressed” with the research findings, said Roberts.

The on-campus experiments were performed at the CCICADA center at Rutgers’ Busch campus in Piscataway. Additional experiments were conducted at MetLife Stadium, which made its WTMDs available to the students for their research.

CCICADA—the Command, Control and Interoperability Center for Advanced Data Analysis—is a federally funded homeland security research group. Educating teachers and students about homeland security is one of its missions, and the REU program is one facet of CCICADA’s larger homeland security education effort.

“The students designed and performed thousands of tests, replicated on three leading manufacturers’ WTMDs, in order to strengthen our understanding of these units. In particular, we (examined) how the impact of speed, the orientation of a metal object, and how a person walks when passing through a metal detector may impact the detection rate. We also examined how nearby metal objects affect the metal detectors,” student mentor Nelson said.


REU student completes one of more than a thousand walkthrough tests of a magnetometer.
Photo credit: James Wojtowicz

Managers of large sports and entertainment venues are starting to use walkthrough metal detectors (WTMDs) to replace time-consuming bag checks.

“Taking them into the field is something new,” said Roberts. “Football, baseball and other sports leagues have said they want to move away from bag checks because the lines got too long and because WTMDs are faster and more accurate.”

More accurate, yes, but not flawless.

Roberts said the students’ experiments showed “great discrepancies” in test results.

“These results, along with other research at CCICADA, show that the machines do not always work the same way in the field as they do in laboratory settings. As they are increasingly used in new applications, primarily outdoors, we need to better understand how they work and to develop of better performance standards,” said Roberts.

Researchers are now focusing on how best to implement the WTMD technologies in an informed manner, given operating parameters and security budgets. CCICADA has been at the forefront of this study and implementation. Its REU students directly contributed to these research efforts, all the while gaining real-world experience at the intersection of private industry and university research.

The REU experiments were part of a larger CCICADA research project focused on developing metrics to assess stadium security and how to manage crowds entering and leaving stadiums in a safe and efficient manner.

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