THE MAGAZINE

From Research to Reality

By Joseph Straw
 
Innovation
 
Like a wise investor hedging his bets, S&T invests a small portion of its money—$33 million to $44 million annually—in technological long shots. Former DHS Under Secretary for S&T Rear Adm. Jay Cohen (Retired) called them “wow” technologies. Walker says they are ideas that rarely succeed but when they do, they can result in “a game-changing capability.” The programs are part of S&T’s Innovation program and its Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency (HSARPA).
 
One of Innovation’s highest-profile projects is Future Attribute Screening Technology (FAST), conducted in collaboration with Massachusetts’ Draper Laboratory and various academic and private-sector partners. If successful, FAST would use a suite of sensors and software to detect “malintent,” a term coined for the program and defined as intent to conceal the intent to do harm, according to Robert Burns, deputy director of S&T for Innovation and HSARPA, and also FAST program manager. As its name implies, the FAST program’s goal is not only to detect potential threats but also to do so while moving members of the public, such as airline passengers, to their destinations quickly.
 
FAST is being developed to sense and analyze involuntary physiological signs from an individual, such as eye movement, heart rate patterns, and gross body movement. “There are 70 years of research dealing with those indicators, and now we’ve taken it to the next step,” says Burns. Using a series of sensors, they are trying to find the best combination, “and that’s ongoing right now,” he explains.
 
Burns cautions that it’s not a simple process; there is “no Pinocchio cue” for deception or malintent, he notes.
Civil liberty concerns. The FAST concept has already raised the hackles of civil libertarians, and Burns explains that programs like it are subject to DHS privacy impact assessments not only before field implementation but also during development. For example, DHS’s privacy office precluded S&T from pursuing technology within FAST that could determine or store personal data about the individual scanned—such as facial recognition software. Burns and S&T spokesman John Verricho further emphasize that the FAST program has not yet achieved proof-of-concept, meaning S&T still does not know whether the system would work.
 
Another major Innovation effort, and a top priority in S&T’s current five-year plan, seeks a way to detect hidden cross-border tunnels built by criminals for illicit purposes. Among the consortium of stakeholders working with S&T on this project are the U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM), Lockheed Martin, and Idaho National Laboratory.
 
The threat is clear, with nearly 100 cross-border tunnels found by law enforcement as of this year. Testifying before Congress last year, Gen. Victor Renuart, head of NORTHCOM, told lawmakers, “While illegal drugs constitute the vast majority of illicit cargo transported through these tunnels, they could also be used to smuggle terrorists and weapons of mass destruction into the country.”
 
The primitive nature of a tunnel contrasts with the immense technological challenge of detecting one from the surface over, say, the 3,200-mile U.S.-Mexican border. The two primary means of detection are to passively “listen” for the sound and seismic activity of tunnel construction and traffic or to actively transmit sound or electromagnetic energy into the ground and analyze the energy reflected back. In the latter case, detection is complicated by a range of factors: varying types and combinations of rock and soil, water content, and temperature. The task is further complicated in urban areas, where man-made infrastructure criss-crosses the underground landscape, and ambient noise and vibration drown out actual threats.
 
Ground-penetrating radars, which are a type of active detection, are commonly used in utility work to locate underground pipes and cables. Lockheed Martin is working with S&T to adapt this technology to tunnel detection. The radar signals, however, are typically only effective to a depth of 40 feet, and they can be thwarted by moisture.
 
Another active approach is being pursued by Idaho National Laboratory, which has developed a portable prototype device called the Look-Ahead Sensor (LAS). Held to the ground, LAS emits vibrations at a range of frequencies, and software analyzes variations in the waves’ reflections back to the device. Anomalies at different frequencies can indicate that there is a void underground.
 
Researchers from Sandia, meanwhile, have experimented with simple microphones above and below ground. As in antisubmarine warfare, where navies keep libraries of different vessel sound signatures, Sandia researchers are able to capture known sounds like passing trucks or helicopters. Those sounds can then be separated out from “outlier” sounds, like jackhammers or footsteps, which indicate tunnel construction and traffic.
 
As with other systems aimed at detecting complex threats, Burns says that any effective tunnel-detection solution would likely incorporate a suite of technologies along with refined analytic software.
 
Transition
 
Transition involves applying proven technologies in new ways to address problems brought to S&T’s attention by end users. Transition ties up the largest single chunk of S&T’s budget, about $450 million. That large investment reflects the relatively high prospects for success inherent in the technologies at play. S&T works directly with end users to spot capability gaps that DHS seeks to fill with new solutions incorporating proven technology.
 
At S&T, 13 integrated product teams (IPTs), each focused on a different subject matter area, such as interoperability, maritime security, and cybersecurity, shepherd concepts into operation. The newest IPT, started early in 2009, is led by first responders, aiding the department’s new TechSolutions Program, created in 2006 expressly to answer first responders’ operational needs as quickly as possible.             
 
In its first three years, S&T has already made a contribution to the goal of improving first-responder safety. Its first fielded product was conceived to reduce the ever-present risk of firefighters becoming disoriented inside burning structures—and the solution came from someone who experienced that himself.
 
Like most veteran firefighters, Battalion Chief Steve Nash of the Solon, Ohio, Fire Department had experienced one of his profession’s worst fears: getting “turned around,” or disoriented, inside a smoke-filled structure. In that incident Nash followed standard procedure: he found a wall and followed it back to the door through which he’d entered, escaping to safety.
 
The incident, however, stayed with Nash, who now commands three companies covering territory that includes a cavernous, one-million-square-foot warehouse. Nash feared that one of his subordinates could become disoriented inside the structure during a fire and run out of air before finding a wall and a safe way out. He thought about it over the years, and by 2006, he had developed a concept.
 
Nash’s solution relied on a navigation technology humans have used for as long as 3,000 years: the compass. The idea: mount a compass in a rotating, square bezel that represents the four sides of a structure, labeled “A,” “B,” “C,” and “D,” just as firefighters designate the front, left, back, and right sides of a building, respectively. Ruggedize the device, and use display elements that glow for visibility in smoke. Before entering a burning building, a firefighter would orient the compass to north, then rotate the bezel to correspond with the walls of the structure. If disoriented, the firefighter has a calibrated compass to guide him calmly to his point of entry or a wall.
 
Nash needed help in the form of funding to get his idea from concept to reality. He first reached out to authorities in his region, but they had limited resources. Then in 2007, he met Greg Payne, a program manager for TechSolutions, at a fire service conference.
 
S&T personnel were impressed by the idea and funded development of prototypes for testing, which began in April 2008. By August of that year, the product was for sale as the FireGround Compass, manufactured and marketed by Halcyon Products of Chagrin Falls, Ohio, where Nash is now a vice president and chief operating officer.
 
The FireGround Compass costs less than $100. The cost to taxpayers for development and testing was only about $200,000, Price says. But, Nash adds, “There’s no way we could have gotten as far as we did without TechSolutions.”
A higher-tech example of S&T’s work is the SPTT. SPTT relies on three existing technologies: infrared (heat) sensing; the motion-stabilization technology used in point-and-shoot cameras; and laser Doppler vibrometry, 30-year-old technology through which laser light distortion is read to determine the motion of an object at a distance.
 
By training the SPTT’s sensors on a strong pulse-point on a victim, such as the back of the thigh, the first responder would—within 30 seconds and from as far away as 60 feet—be able to obtain temperature data to determine whether a victim was still alive and pulse data to determine his or her condition. As space-age as it sounds, the SPTT is in fact a transition project that could reach the demonstration phase by summer.
 
Payne notes that the device is no substitute for a seasoned emergency medical professional, who would take less than 10 seconds to diagnose and triage a victim. However, when victims are numerous and paramedics constrained by hazmat suits, SPTT could prove a valuable tool, he says.
 
The SPTT, funded with about $1 million from S&T, is in the second of three development phases, meaning S&T and its partners, Boeing and the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, have proven the technology can do the job, and they must now package and ruggedize it for use in the field, Payne says.
 

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