Evolv Express machines were in use at Hard Rock Stadium for the College Football Playoff National Championship game Jan. 11. (Courtesy Stratoscope)

Artificial intelligence aspect streamlines process

The College Football Playoff tested the next generation of metal detectors for the Jan. 11 championship game at Hard Rock Stadium, and one NFL team executive predicts the contactless screening system will become widespread at sports venues over the next several years.

Evolv Technology, a 7-year-old firm in Waltham, Mass., produces the contactless system equipped with artificial intelligence. Fans walk between 6-foot-tall sensors without having to stop and empty their pockets of cellphones, keys and other metal items compared with standard magnetometers. 

The system, called Evolv Express, was set up at Hard Rock Stadium’s northeast gate for the game between Alabama and Ohio State. Official attendance was 14,926. About 2,000 fans passed through the contactless security system, and 115 people were stopped for secondary checks.

All told, it amounted to an “alert rate” of 6%, compared with 20% to 25% for older systems in which bag checks are done outside of the metal detectors, said Dan Donovan, a security consultant teaming with Evolv Technology to rent the equipment at arenas and stadiums.

Evolv Express contains a series of alert settings to identify weapons and other potential threats, similar to traditional walk-through scanners. The difference is, the flexibility of the AI algorithms allows it to bypass laptop computers, steel-toed boots, artificial limbs, belt buckles and beer cans, all items that bog down screening procedures with most walk-through systems.

Mercedes-Benz Stadium, home to the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons and Major League Soccer’s Atlanta United, has tested Evolv Express over the past two years, including the 2020 SEC Championship, in which the building had four units operating to help screen 19,000 fans. AMB Sports & Entertainment, the teams’ parent company, runs the stadium, and it recently bought two units with plans to purchase more machines to use in 2021, said Joe Coomer, the group’s vice president of security.

“All these other things that set the walk-through metal detector off — nine times out of 10 it’s something other than a weapon,” Coomer said. “This technology now wipes out 80% to 90% of those contacts and we can actually focus on finding things that go bang and boom. We’ve had several teams come by, and I can see this technology being in place at all of our venues over the next five years.”

With Evolv Technology detectors, potential threats are flagged by an audio signal and a red light/green light system on the back of the equipment. The sensors take a digital photo of the item with a box highlighting the item’s location on a person. The image is sent to a tablet operated by security staff about 10 feet away to conduct a secondary screen to identify the item. 

“All those things we’ve been catching over the years from pocket knives to alcohol — we can deal with those things on the inside,” Coomer said. “We’ve got tons of resources and space, but don’t have all of that at the gates.”

By eliminating the “yo-yo” effect of having patrons walk back a second time through most detectors after the system’s buzzer goes off, Evolv Express streamlines and speeds up the screening process in a contactless environment, he said.

It’s a critical aspect of the post-pandemic world as venues prepare to reopen with restricted attendance and, eventually, full capacity.

Apart from sports venues, the system has been tested at convention centers, theme parks, performing arts centers and museums, said Anil Chitkara, Evolv Technology’s founder. The data shows Evolv Express can process up to 3,600 people an hour compared with 350 people an hour under traditional systems in which people stop to empty their pockets before walking through, Chitkara said. 

At Dreamforce 2019, the massive conference for CRM software vendor Salesforce, 450,000 attendees passed through 15 Evolv units over the four-day event at Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco, Donovan said.

Ultimately, the technology saves venues money through installing less equipment and reducing the number of staff required to run security checks because of the system’s AI efficiency, according to Coomer and Donovan. 

Coomer said the technology eliminates the need for five to eight traditional walk-through units at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Pre-pandemic, AMB Sports saw the financial savings as the primary benefit, but feedback from surveys taken last spring indicated fans didn’t want security staff touching them and their personal items. Evolv’s contactless aspect helps resolve that issue, Coomer said.

There are a few competitors in the contactless screening space among major technology firms, but they’re all two to five years away from bringing those products to market, he said. Nondisclosure agreements prevent Coomer from identifying the other vendors.

“For the 2021 season, 90% to 95% of our fans coming in the stadium will go through Evolv Express,” he said. “Our trust and belief in the throughput on the devices means we no longer have to have our gates open for two hours. We can knock that time down to 60 to 90 minutes. We’re going to see financial savings as well once we get to pre-COVID arrival and fan attendance numbers. We believe the units will pay for themselves in one year.”

As an early adopter, AMB Sports bought the machines directly from Evolv Technology. 

For most venues, Evolv signs lease agreements for the equipment. Donovan, a security consultant for arenas and stadiums, recently went back to running his own company called Stratoscope. As part of his business, he started a rental firm called Ingressotek that has a deal with Evolv to rent the machines to facilities.  

The cost to rent one unit runs about $145,000 over four years, Donovan said.

“The technology will find the weapon, whether it’s on the body or in a bag,” he said. “It’s looking for barrels and long cylindrical things. There’s a whole bunch of AI built into it. In the testing we’ve done, under 10% of fans going into an NFL stadium with bag restrictions are getting stopped and sent to secondary screening.”

By reshaping the tedious process of going through long security lines at the gates, the technology has shifted the mindset for venue operators and the frontline staff running those systems, Coomer said. In Atlanta, the learning curve for training game day staff takes about 60 to 90 minutes, much less than the six to eight hours officials anticipated. 

No security system is 100% foolproof, but Coomer said the AI component enables Evolv Express to get “smarter” as the detectors are used more often for mass gatherings. In addition, the experience itself is much better for security staff that have gained a greater level of confidence using the new technology.

“The staff gets kind of fatigued (under older systems) in knowing it’s another person with a metal hip,” he said. “Through a lot of our own internal assessments, we know that humans are probably the biggest flaw in these mechanical operations when it comes to inspection. When Evolv Express goes off, they know something is there and the machine is right. We’ve got a better behavioral response from our staff and the alert rate is down.”  

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated since it was originally posted.