Travellers departing from Dubai will no longer need to pass through any sort of security clearance counter or e-gate, they will simply walk through a virtual aquarium tunnel that will scan their face or iris using hidden cameras while they’re in motion.
The tunnel, which will display high-quality images of an aquarium, will be equipped with about 80 cameras set up in every corner and the idea came about after 18 months of brainstorming.
The move is one of several new security measures taken by Dubai aviation officials, such as replacing the explosive detection scanners with new, Chinese-made ones that can detect a wider range of explosive materials.
“The fish is a sort of entertainment and something new for the traveller but, at the end of the day, it attracts the vision of the travellers to different corners in the tunnel for the cameras to capture his/her face print,” said Major Gen Obaid Al Hameeri, deputy director general of Dubai residency and foreign affairs.
“The virtual images are of very high quality and gives a simulation of a real-life aquarium.”
The tunnel display can also be altered to offer other natural settings, such as the desert, or even to display adverts.
At the end of the tunnel, if the traveller is already registered, they will either receive a green message that says “have a nice trip” or, if the person is wanted for some reason, a red sign will alert the operations room to interfere.
“And throughout the tunnel, the passenger does not feel anything, they pass through normally,” Maj Gen Al Hameeri said.
The first of these “virtual borders” will be installed by the end of the summer of 2018 at Terminal 3 at Dubai International Airport, the home of Emirates. In phases up until 2020, the tunnels will be rolled out at other Dubai terminals.
While the tunnels will serve all passengers, not only those travelling with Emirates, Maj Gen Al Hameeri said the first phase will be piloted at Emirates’ terminal as it already has the required infrastructure and it is also the official airline and partner.
The idea came about when officials were considering how best to accommodate the continually increasing number of passengers travelling through Dubai airports.
General Civil Aviation figures show that more than 124 million passengers are expected to pass through all Dubai airports by 2020 so “we had to come up with more ways to co-op with the increase. Right now, we have 80 million,” the Maj Gen said.
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Travellers will be able to register their face scans at kiosks all around the airport, and they will also be available during a promotional stage at a number of malls and hotels.
The tunnels will replace the security clearance currently conducted at airport counters.
Even though airport officials have managed to cut down the time spent at the security clearance desk to five seconds, it is still not fast enough when passenger numbers hit 120 million, said Maj Gen Al Hameeri, who added that the tunnels are part of an ongoing process to introduce innovative measures.
“The tunnel has not come out of nowhere, without any foundation,” he said.
“We have been working for about four years to transform the procedure from the traditional counter and in the future we will not need the counter at all.
“There will be auditing, of course, but not through the counter.”
He added that security, as much as speeding up procedures and enhancing the travel process for passengers, is a priority.
“This will also benefit stakeholders; now the traveller can spend more time shopping at duty free, or avoid missing their flight due to long queues,” he said.
Initially, the first tunnel will conduct face scans, with a plan to introduce iris in motion scanning as well.
Meanwhile, Rabie Atieh, vice president of Emirates Group Security, said that, in addition to the tunnel introduction, other stringent security measures are being implemented.
“There are measures to increase inspections, there are new Chinese devices that detect things that were not detected by earlier devices, like explosives… and there are many new measures with regards to combatting terrorism,” he said.
“Every year there are new challenges. We try to anticipate and face the threat before it happens.”
Dubai Airports’ chief executive Paul Griffiths said that security teams at the airports are always “vigilant”.
“We are always vigilant, always working with police and national security… so vigilance and collective responsibility is what has kept us safe,” he said.
“We are trying to minimise disruption to the customer journey and develop new measures that will develop security standards, because obviously the threat is increasing.”
Currently, said Mr Atieh, there are 600 to 700 tonnes of gold and up to US$25 billion that pass through Dubai airport each year.