Backscatter, iris scans, millimeter waves, and "MicroHounds." That's just a small sampling of the growing glossary of terms describing a burst of new technology conceived in defense of our homeland.
Even while the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) copes with hurricane recovery, companies are moving forward on a range of technologies that seem almost endless, from biometrics and bomb detection to video surveillance and RFID.
"The problem of worldwide terrorism is huge, and it is going to take all of us to address it," says T.J. Allard, director of homeland security programs at Sandia National Laboratories. "We need the long-term research of national labs and universities, as well as the best work of private companies."
A matter of priorities
Like many businesses and colleges since 9/11, Sandia has been ramping up research on security technology, setting up a special business unit in 2003. This year, the lab will get $80 million in direct funding from DHS, which will leverage more than $200 million in additional security-related work, Allard told Design News.
Among the many examples of Sandia's anti-terrorism efforts is "MicroHound," a 12-lb device that samples the air for vapors from explosives with an on-board sensor called an ion mobility spectrometer. Designed for screening visitors to schools, courtrooms and other facilities, the sniffer can detect explosives in parts-per-trillion concentrations. That's sensitive enough to identify explosives in a fingerprint left by a person recently working with bomb-making chemicals.
Allard also points to MicroChemLab as another showcase device. The handheld instrument detects bacteria and viruses that could threaten water supplies. Analysis takes place in 10-cm-long, sealed microchannels that are chemically etched in 2-cm-square glass chips. The device sorts components of the sample for identification as they move through the channels under an electric field. The length of time that the compound is retained reveals its identity. Under a cooperative research agreement with Tenix, an Australian defense contractor, Sandia will use this core technology to develop an automated water safety device for municipalities.
Such devices to detect biological and chemical threats are becoming an increasing priority for DHS, say security experts. Massachusetts-based U.S. Genomics, well-known for its gene-mapping technology in life sciences, is one of 14 companies to receive contracts from the DHS Advanced Research Projects Agency (HSARPA) for development of sensor technology in bio-defense applications. "The ability to monitor public spaces for potential threats is a key element of our efforts to ensure the safety of our citizens," says David Bolka, director of HSARPA.
Under the $7.5 million award, U.S. Genomics will leverage its single-molecule analysis expertise to develop a new instrument that detects and identifies airborne pathogens, including anthrax and smallpox. The technology, based on advances in microfluidics and optical engineering, does not require amplification or use of pathogen-specific reagents for detection of each specific threat. "DHS put out a set of specifications for air sampling that is quite demanding," notes Faye Boeckman, marketing manager, who adds that the work could yield downstream benefits for medical diagnostics.
Free to move about the country
Meanwhile, more than four years after 9/11, making travel safer continues to be a worry. Facing criticisms that conventional line X-ray systems for inspecting carry-on bags are too unreliable, the Traffic Safety Administration (TSA) is exploring alternatives, such as the COBRA system for explosive and weapon detection developed by Analogic, another Massachusetts company with a strong medical-imaging background.
Analogic has levered its medical imaging expertise to build COBRA, a new screening device for carry-on bags that uses CT scanning to deliver 3D images.
Introduced at the security industry's big ASIS International Show in September, the $300,000 COBRA uses computed tomography (CT) scanning to take 700 images in helical fashion around a carry-on bag. The process yields high-resolution, 3D images and can inspect 300 bags an hour. Analogic VP Phil Harris expects the system to be deployed in airports by the end of 2006. Since 2003, TSA has bought more than 550 of Analogic's larger CT-based systems to inspect checked baggage.
Competitor Rapiscan, Hawthorne, CA, is taking another tack with its new QXR1000 checkpoint screener, a system developed as an upgrade to its X-ray systems already installed at airports. As product manager Amit Verma explains it, the QXR1000 provides automated detection of explosives by sending out RF waves with frequencies targeted to the resonant frequencies of various explosives concealed in baggage. If there's a match, a sensitive receiver picks up a signal from nuclei in the explosives. "With this system, the operator can concentrate on looking for weapons, such as guns and knives," notes Verma.
For screening passengers, American Science and Engineering, Billerica, MA, has just announced a new detection system called Smart-Check, developed with funding support from TSA. It incorporates the same "Z Backscatter" technology that has been used successfully by governments and police departments in
American Science & Engineering’s new SmartCheck system analyzes patterns of scattered X-rays to spot weapons and explosives on passengers.
specially equipped vans that can detect everything from nuclear weapons and dirty bombs to drugs and other contraband. This system directs a sweeping beam of X-rays at an object, then analyzes the pattern of photons scattered during the inspection.
About the size of a refrigerator, SmartCheck screens a person standing about 8 inches away in just 8 seconds. The resulting image shows both the outline of the person scanned—and a silhouette of a threatening object, such as a gun. "We think this system provides the most comprehensive detection of threatening objects concealed on people—metallic and non-metallic objects, explosives, and suicide vests," says Joe Reiss, AS&E marketing director.
Still another new screening technology that targets people is a "millimeter wave" device from Brijot Imaging Systems, Orlando, FL. Based on the engineering work of Lockheed Martin, the $60,000 system emits no radiation of any kind but instead senses and analyzes the density of energy radiated by humans and concealed weapons. The device can capture images from as far away as 45 ft, with maximum detection time of 0.3 sec. Just introduced in April, the technology has prompted interest from TSA, port authorities, sporting arenas, hospitals and corporations, and distributor orders have already hit more than $100 million.
Trackers to hackers
Other weapons in the new cold war seek to help authorities weed out potential terrorists and suspicious cargo, while speeding travel for trusted passengers.
The federal government's Registered Traveler Program, now being tested at six airports and targeted for expansion, asks people for basic information, such as place of birth, previous addresses, and driver's license number. Following a government background check to rule out criminals or suspected terrorists, approved registered passengers get cards with their digital fingerprints and iris images. At the airport, they reduce their screening time by entering special reserved security lanes equipped with iris scanners.
For closer scrutiny of non-citizens visiting the U.S., the DHS is testing visa cards embedded with RFID tags
RF Code’s active RFID tags, integrated with sensors, are among the technologies being evaluated to detect tampering in cargo containers.
at five border crossings. When read by a scanner, the tag transmits a serial number, which government officials can use to access background information on the individual.
RFID, combined with sensors, also is being employed in pilot programs to prevent tampering that can occur in the nearly 12 million cargo containers shipped to U.S. ports each year. In one government-led program called Operation Safe Commerce, RF Code, Mesa, AZ, devised an electronic seal consisting of an active RFID tag attached to a fiber optic cable. If someone tampers with a seal, the tag emits a security-violation signal, along with its normal tracking signal. In the same pilot, the company tested a radiation sensor integrated with its active RFID tag. "These pilots have clearly demonstrated RFID's role in shipping industry security applications, particularly when combined with various sensors," says RF Code founder Rob Ufford.
Still others are addressing cyber-security issues. Among the projects at Dartmouth College's Institute for Security Studies, says director David Kotz, is work on ways to stop terrorists from hacking into computer networks that control dams, power grids, and industrial processes. "People tend to focus on today's problems," says Kotz, "but homeland security is a long-term challenge that will take an enormous research commitment for many years to come."