Boston airport to test Aether security devices

Owings Mills firm hopes pilot program will lead to contract

January 16, 2002|By Andrew Ratner | Andrew Ratner,SUN STAFF

Aether Systems Inc. announced a project yesterday to provide wireless communications for security at Boston's Logan International Airport, the takeoff point for the two planes that destroyed the World Trade Center in September.

The Owings Mills-based wireless technology company hopes a pilot program with the Massachusetts Port Authority will result in a contract at Logan and build momentum for its emerging "homeland security" business.

"They're tapping into a priority at the moment," said Paul Coster, an investment analyst with J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. in New York. "It's a very small deployment, but it's a smart initiative. It's another seed of growth that the company is planting."

The wireless industry in general - and Aether in particular - was battered last year as some of the industries that initially embraced quick and portable exchange of data, such as financial services, were shrunken by recession. Aether had to let go 500 employees and watched its stock sink from $60 to less than $6 last fall.

Aether's shares closed up 36 cents yesterday to $9.04 on the Nasdaq stock exchange. Company executives express confidence that they've weathered the worst and are seeing gains in new areas, especially trucking and government.

Officials at Logan have been assessing Aether's technology for the past two months. Massachusetts State Police, equipped with BlackBerry hand-held computers, are using the technology to comb National Crime Information Center records on outstanding warrants and previous felonies.

Troopers turned up three stolen cars on airport property because of the instant access to records, said Jose Juves, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Port Authority, which operates Logan and other facilities.

As much as any airport, Boston's - the nation's 17th busiest - has been under a microscope since Sept. 11.

It hired as consultants aviation security experts from Dallas and Israel and is negotiating to hire the head of security of Britain's airports. It has added equipment that scans and verifies the authenticity of drivers' licenses and passports.

Other technology matches instant snapshots of passengers with mug shots of federal fugitives - similar to technology used at the 2000 Super Bowl. Officials will decide whether to add Aether's PocketBlue software to their defense.

"It has put our troopers in a pro-active role," Juves said. "We're going to continue to test this for another month or two, then do an evaluation and meet with our security consultants and federal authorities, including the FBI."

"They're under incredible pressure to address some of the security challenges at Logan," said Mike Mancuso, an Aether executive. He formerly led Cerulean Technology Inc., a Boston-area company that specialized in wireless technology for government. Aether purchased Cerulean for $150 million in 2000 and now has 3,000 police and fire departments as clients, including the Baltimore Police Department.

"The largest hurdle we have to overcome is the acceptance of technology," Mancuso said. "Sept. 11 has heightened the awareness and eliminated political obstacles in the way of sharing information between agencies."

The issue of access to crime data arose in Maryland last week when state police released a videotape of a traffic stop made Sept. 9.

A Maryland trooper stopped one of the men later accused of hijacking a plane that crashed in Pennsylvania on Sept. 11. The man was driving 90 mph on Interstate 95 in Cecil County Sept. 9. The officer had no access to information that would have caused him to detain the driver.

Analysts said they thought that Aether has identified a vital niche, but aren't assured that it will fix what ails the 800-employee company and its peers.

"It really is a challenging period for Aether to get business momentum up and moving," said Robert Becker with Argus Research in New York. "This is a very tough environment to attract new customers. Perhaps security is an exception but that takes time to develop that as well, whether in airports or shopping centers or football stadiums.

"Even though security is on everyone's mind, it does take time before government agencies can adopt new technologies."

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