SINGAPORE: Clearing immigration on arrival at Changi Terminal 4 could be a “contactless” and potentially quicker process for some Singaporeans.
Instead of having their passport and thumb print scanned, these travellers would verify their identities through scans of their iris and face at an automated lane, the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) announced on Wednesday (Dec 4).
This helps avoid verification issues with faded fingerprints due to ageing, dryness or scarring said the authority.
Singapore citizens aged six and above holding passports beginning with the letter K and issued after Jan 1, 2018 are eligible for this contactless clearance. These citizens with newer passports have their biometric information stored in a national database. No prior sign-up is required.
The initiative is part of a six-month trial that started on Nov 25. It is the second such trial after the one at Tuas Checkpoint which ran from April to October. ICA aims to implement contactless clearance for all eligible travellers from 2022.
“What we envision in the future for Singaporeans is there’s no need for them to present their passports or fingerprints at our automated lanes,” said Superintendent Tan Kah Wee, 44, head of the New Clearance Concept Office at ICA’s operations division.
HOW MUCH QUICKER IS IT?
When asked if the system being tested enables faster clearance than current automated lanes, Supt Tan would only say he expects it to be “more efficient”, pointing out that ICA is still collecting data from the trial.
“Because the process does not involve the traveller presenting his passport or fingerprint, we expect it to be more seamless,” he added.
When ICA officers went through both systems at the same time as part of a demonstration, CNA observed that the officer in the contactless lane was cleared a few seconds quicker.
HOW IT WORKS
At the contactless lane, a traveller has to clear two gantries.
He first stands on a footprint mat in front of the first gantry. A scanning machine displaying animated instructions then captures images of his iris and face.
If successful, the gantry opens and allows the traveller through. A second machine then confirms his identity to ensure the same person is passing through, before a second gantry opens.
This staggered system allows a second person to start iris and facial scanning immediately after the person in front clears the first gantry. “There’s concurrency, so we believe that this clearance flow could increase throughput,” Supt Tan said.
This system is different from the one trialled at Tuas Checkpoint, which only has one machine and two gantries.
A second contactless clearance lane using the latter system will be added in the same Terminal 4 arrival hall from early next year.
“We are trying two clearance flows to assess the feasibility as well as efficiency, (and see) which one actually has the most benefits for Singaporeans and our operations,” Supt Tan said.
FINDINGS FROM FIRST TRIAL
Supt Tan said ICA will study the results from the trial before deciding whether to expand the initiative to other checkpoints. The agency will evaluate several things such as ease of use, physical and environmental factors, as well as throughput and time taken.
ICA said more than 22,500 Singaporean travellers participated in the Tuas Checkpoint trial, with about 90 per cent of them clearing immigration “smoothly without any difficulties”.
The remaining 10 per cent had issues like unfamiliarity with iris and facial imaging, leading to unsuccessful verification. Some refused to remove their caps, which along with other headgear and eyewear could obstruct the scanning process.
For this, ICA worked with the Home Team Science and Technology Agency to develop a more dynamic graphical user interface than the one used at Tuas Checkpoint.
ICA said the dynamic instructions are more intuitive and allow people to understand them better. For instance, the machine can sense if someone is wearing a cap and display instructions for him to remove it.
“I think travellers still come to the lane and have the habit of just presenting their thumbprint,” Supt Tan said. “So that’s something we need to educate users. Maybe more signage can help in this process.”
Other issues faced include environmental factors like ambient lighting, which could affect the quality of facial images captured. The lighting at the Terminal 4 arrival hall has been adjusted for the trial.
And if the initiative was expanded to the departure halls, Supt Tan cautioned that it should not lead to Singaporeans forgetting to bring their passports when they travel.
Supt Tan said it is a constant learn-and-tweak process with the trials, but stressed that ICA is committed to fully implementing the contactless system for the benefit of Singaporeans.
“Of course, we don’t do trial after trial,” he added. “Depending on the trial results, if there’s an opportunity to operationalise it, we will.”
But it has not been all smooth sailing at the Changi Airport trial.
CNA observed that three travellers, including a Caucasian man and a young boy holding Singapore passports, were not able to clear the contactless lane for reasons that were unclear.
Other travellers had an easier time, with one woman mouthing “so fast” as she breezed through the lane. “It was way faster (than the current system),” said another traveller, 16-year-old student Muhammad Raif. “There were no problems. All I had to do was just look at the camera.”
Ms Margaret Lau, 63, said she was not used to taking off her glasses when clearing arrival immigration in Singapore, but was glad that she did not need to scan her thumbprint.
“My fingers are always very dry, so (the thumbprint scanning machine) always doesn’t accept it,” the admin worker added. “This system is good.”
Still, the contactless clearance system has its limitations, Supt Tan said, noting that it will not be able to process people who use coloured or patterned contact lenses.
Nevertheless, he said officers will be on hand to direct travellers to alternative lanes, even as he envisions a future without physical passport stamping booths.
Supt Tan said it was too early to say how the contactless system could work for foreign travellers, given their facial and iris images have not been stored. But he noted that contactless clearance for foreigners might not necessarily be the same as the one being tested now.
“We are looking to see how in the future, we can actually have all travellers including foreigners have automated clearance,” he added.