New technologies target terrorist, suicide bombs.
Systems likely to be proposed include scanners that can look inside sealed containers, new building designs, video-analysis software, nano-electric detectors and a host of mobile electromagnetic sensor arrays.
In June, the Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency (HSARPA) sponsored a two-day workshop to provide guidelines to contractors seeking to compete for upcoming contract awards.
A solicitation for industry bids is expected in upcoming months, said a DHS spokesman. The plan is to award multiple contracts.
"It's time to move on to new technologies," said Susan Hallowell, technical director of the Transportation Security Laboratory.
Among the technologies being evaluated are advanced scanners to detect truck bombs. One system would rely on neutron analysis to inspect the cargo of sealed containers. It would beam neutrons through container walls to bounce off targets inside, and measure the reflected gamma wave signatures to identify contents. The system does not use a radioactive neutron generator, preventing the device from possibly becoming its own 'dirty bomb' if destroyed by an explosion.
Scores of companies are pitching this form of technology for land mine and port-of-entry screening. Sue Systems Inc., of Poway, Calif., claims that a vehicle-based system can identify 1 kilogram of explosives on the move, at 1.5 meters. It would detect 100 kilograms of explosives at 3 meters.
A pilot program at the Ysleta Border Station in El Paso, Texas, will test a truck screening system designed to inspect containers. The facility is scheduled to start inspecting 10 to 15 trucks a day in September.
HiEnergy Technologies Inc. of Irvine, Calif., has created a variation of the neutron system. It successfully measured 30 or more grams of explosives in less than half a minute in open-air tests at the Navy's range at Indian Head, Md., and during testing with the Los Angeles bomb squad. The company anticipates a trial run at Madrid's airport parking lot in Spain later this year. The system uses a sensor attached to a van to scan car trunks with a pulsed, high-energy neutron accelerator.
Other companies are promoting more familiar methods, such as X-ray machines. High-energy X-rays, like those developed at Smith's Detection N.A., are now being mounted on vehicles and produced in a variety of power levels. The system, company officials said, can penetrate 12 inches of steel, and can scan 25 trucks an hour.
Other well-known technologies under consideration are magnetometers and gradiometers, which discover hidden devices by seeking telltale magnetic anomalies.
On the farther edge of the technology curve, new breakthroughs are emerging in micro-sensors. Sandia National Laboratory and Lockheed Martin are trying to adapt an ion spectrometry array that is designed to detect traces of unexploded undersea ordnance, to find vapor mad particle telltales of explosives. Advances in miniaturization allow researchers to create a scan the size of a cellular phone that can sniff nitrates, TNT and other explosives at a sensitivity rate of 10 parts per trillion.
While nanotech devices are nearly commonplace in the research world, applying these miniscule structures to the identification of tiny samples is a recent trend. Researchers at Princeton Nanotechnology Systems and McQ-Systems Innovations Inc. assert that the low power requirements and durable engineering make nano-machines well suited for mobile detection systems.
A growing emphasis on automation is proving to be helpful in the security industry. As more of the tasks get automated, security professionals can concentrate on intangibles such as people's behavior and overall awareness, instead of monitoring a screen. "Right now, we utilize screeners to do what machines should be doing," noted Hallowell.
Individual suicide bombers are considered one of the hardest threats to counter. To prevent these attacks, "smart" video surveillance systems must be able to target individuals.
One method showcased at the HSARPA workshop scans a target's face to measure surges in blood flow, which can indicate an agitated or aggressive state of mind. "The physiological changes in a person as he contemplates or is about to attack are all pregnant areas for R&D," said Keith Ward, program manager at HSARPA.
Artificial intelligence algorithms would instruct video systems to track suspicious vehicles or people, according to an expert from Fast Security Systems Inc. When the suspected target moves beyond a security perimeter an alarm is tripped. Software filters could be tailored for specific needs, such as fixing attention on cars rather than trucks, or ignoring people and focusing on unattended bags.
Video systems also are being developed that can automatically identify anomalous shapes and bulges of concealed objects, such as a bomb hidden under a long coat. One proposed system uses millimeter-wave (sub-terahertz) radiation to produce hidden images. The Rochester Institute of Technology has developed enhancements to improve the resolution of the traditionally blurry images generated by surveillance cameras.
Video surveillance also is being proposed to keep watch on the nation's unguarded miles of train tracks. Researchers hope to develop technologies to replace the current, manual check-off tracks. Since rail tracks are fairly static, analyzing software easily would discover out-of-place items. The video systems would be mounted on unmanned trains, according to Kennedy Chew, who presented an abstract during the workshop.
The attack on a commuter train in Madrid also inspired ideas to block cellular phone signals, which remotely detonate bombs. Technologies that create a silent zone have been used at prisons and casinos, but a new generation is being crafted to counter more complicated radio frequency triggers.
Countering radio frequency remote controls is often difficult because technology requires hundreds of watts worth of dangerous radiation, said a Bahia 21 Corporation official. The company's system blocks any remote control activator operating between 20 megahertz and three gigahertz, as well as cellular phones. The company claims it can create silent zones around vehicles at 500 meters using only 60 watts of power.
In a twist on this theme, Norris Electro Optical Systems Inc. is marketing "The Preemptor" to surprise would-be bombers, blowing them up with their own devices by remote control at the controller's time of choosing. The system is about the since of a shoulder-mounted television camera and can trigger blasts up to 75 yards away.
Other researchers are taking on the problem at a macro level, examining infrastructure protection tactics to mitigate vulnerabilities to targets, either by erecting barriers or applying new materials. This school of research sees bomb attacks as inevitable and formulates ways to reduce casualties through smart engineering.
One team from the University of Florida-Gainesville is researching the application of low-cost safety films on public transit and buildings to prevent the lethal fragmentation during a bombing. The General Services Administration requires glazing to survive 4 pounds per square-inch of overpressure during blasts. Researchers said they are achieving blast pressures of 40 pounds per square-inch in lab tests.
Other engineering firms, such as the Advanced Technology for Large Structural Systems Engineering Research Center at Lehigh University, the Protective Technology Center at Pennsylvania State University and Department of Civil Engineering at UNC Charlotte, are researching methods to model new buildings, or reinforce existing ones, to withstand large blasts.
By studying structural failures in lab blasts and real-world attacks, researchers are honing in on new shock-absorbing materials, casualty-minimizing layouts and new methods of securing the interaction between the soil and building foundations.
As they seek solutions to the suicide-bomber threat, the scope of the challenge is not lost on security officials. "Some have compared it to ending world hunger," quipped Tom Hopkins, director of technology development at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.