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From Research to Reality

An emergency medical team arrives at the scene of a mass casualty event at a suburban shopping mall. The victims—among them the first police, firefighters, and paramedics at the scene—are unconscious, but show no obvious signs of trauma, raising the specter of a toxic chemical leak and possibly a terrorist attack.

A group of paramedics dressed in hazmat protective suits approaches the scene, one team member is carrying a ruggedized, briefcase-sized device that he places atop the hood of an abandoned vehicle. He aims the device at individual victims—one by one—from a distance. Using the results as a guide, he directs his fellow paramedics into the “hot zone” to treat and evacuate those who are not already dead.

The response scenario above is imagined by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T). It may not be long before the technology envisioned in use in such a case—a standoff patient triage tool (SPTT) that has already proven itself in the lab—is reality.

SPTT represents just one example of the types of advances being pursued by S&T, which divides its role into four areas: The first two—traditional research and innovation—are ways in which DHS pursues entirely new technologies. The latter two—transition and commercialization—are where the agency helps further the development and field deployment of proven technologies. In each case, S&T focuses on how technology will benefit three primary groups of customers: DHS itself, the nation’s first responders, and owner-operators of the nation’s critical infrastructure.

Traditional Research

Research is pursued in an open-ended manner. “There have been many reports written by the National Academies saying that the worst thing you can do to bound science and limit discovery is to limit the direction,” S&T Director of Research Starnes Walker explains.

“Many, many discoveries occur at the seams of disciplines of physics, math, chemistry, and many of those occur serendipitously where a principal investigator is really looking in this area because we want to know more, but they see something they don’t understand, that takes them on a tangent, and that many times turns out to be where the key discovery is in science and technology,” he notes.

Thus, S&T follows science and engineering research across academia and at the country’s national laboratories to watch for research that might hold promise for its customers. When it finds something it views as promising, it funds further research.

Even then, the research is not restricted to a specific, operational end, Walker says. If, for example, DHS were to fund long-term research in blast mitigation, by the time a discovery occurs, the threat environment may have changed dramatically. If the threat remains, that discovery might simply displace the threat to another method of attack. If, however, DHS were to fund research into the broader science of advanced building materials, a discovery might enhance blast mitigation, building resilience, or levee construction, Walker says.

Within academia, DHS also focuses a portion of its academic research a little more directly by allocating funds to 12 subject-matter specific centers of excellence, such as the University of Minnesota’s National Center for Food Protection and Defense (NCFPD), the University of Maryland’s National Center for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), and Texas A&M University’s National Center for Foreign and Zoonotic Disease Defense (FAZD).

Research underway at NCFPD, for example, ranges from a sector-wide risk assessment of the U.S. imported food supply and ongoing monitoring of consumer confidence in food safety in pursuit of more effective and affordable test methods for the presence of toxins in food.

START maintains the Global Terrorism Database, a repository of information on more than 80,000 terrorist attacks covering nearly 40 years, while its researchers study why people become terrorists and how terror groups flourish or fail. FAZD focuses on the persistent threat that animal diseases pose to humans, pursuing medicines, data analysis systems, and educational programs to mitigate risk.

Wide-ranging research and development for the homeland security market also takes place at the country’s national laboratories, which are funded primarily by the Department of Energy (DOE). At DOE’s Brookhaven and Sandia national laboratories (in Upton, New York, and Livermore, California, respectively) for example, scientists are exploring technologies that hold the promise of improved detection of radiological materials, while reducing inconvenience to the public and speeding commerce.

Existing technology can detect radiation but not its precise location or the exact nature of the source. Complicating the issue, common commercial items such as porcelain toilets, kitty litter, and even bananas can emit harmless levels of radiation that generate “innocent alarms,” slowing container processing.

Currently, the best commercial detection of radioactivity comes from highly enriched germanium devices like those marketed by manufacturer Ortec. To function, however, the chemicals must be cooled within the device by liquid nitrogen to -321 degrees Fahrenheit, raising the cost of large hand-held units to around $75,000, compared to less than $25,000 for a sodium iodide device.

At Brookhaven, research involves growth of calcium zinc telluride (CZT) crystals, which can detect the same gamma radiation as highly enriched germanium, but at room temperature, according to Joseph Indusi, chair of Brookhaven’s Nonproliferation and National Security Department, and Carl Czajkowski, division leader for Detector Development and Testing. While CZT may not offer data as granular as highly enriched germanium, the elimination of the cooling requirement offers promise for the homeland security market.

The current challenge for Brookhaven researchers lies in growing CZT crystals to a thickness necessary to detect the high intensity gamma radiation emitted from weapons-grade materials. That could require crystals centimeters thick, while current crystals are only millimeters thick, Indusi says.

Meanwhile across the country at Sandia, researchers funded by DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration and the Pentagon’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency are pursuing different radiation-detection technology: the neutron scatter camera, a device about the size of a washing machine with the ability to detect high-energy protons—nuclear particles given off by radioactive decay—as they pass through it from any direction.

The neutron scatter camera relies on proton-rich fluid sensors. Neutrons entering the device bounce off the protons, and the system detects them and their direction of origin. However the technology requires extended periods of time—hours or days—to detect the trickle of high-energy neutrons coming from a radioactive source and then pinpoint their trajectory. That rules out use of the device for spot checks at places like airports or seaports, but it might work if it could be carried out while goods were in transit. By having containers scanned at sea, ports would be spared the logistical logjam of screening containers one-by-one.

To test that idea, the departments of Energy and Defense placed the neutron scatter camera on three round-trip sea voyages between the West Coast and Hawaii. The tests showed promise, but the would be end-users want higher sensitivity and faster results. Further, the neutron scatter camera’s fluid sensors are currently very delicate and their contents highly flammable, according to Sandia.


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 crisscrosses 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 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.


S&T’s role as a clearinghouse for capability gaps reported by its partners in DHS and the first-responder community puts it in a good position to tell manufacturers of technologies what the market wants or needs. For businesses, however, anecdotal evidence is not enough, so S&T has gone further.

“Commercialization was set up based on a simple premise: that the private sector would be willing and able to step up and assist us if we gave them two things, and neither of them is money,” says S&T Chief Commercialization Officer Thomas Cellucci. “The first is detailed operational requirements that articulate what our needs are; the second is a conservative estimate of the potential market.”

The market’s product needs are detailed in operational requirement documents (ORDs), which S&T publishes on its Web site. S&T has issued eight to date, covering solutions that range from something as narrow as a blast-resistant video camera to something as broad as a “National Emergency Response Interoperability Framework and Resilient System of Systems.” ORDs are performance-based and, therefore, “solution agnostic,” says Cellucci.

Products approved by DHS as satisfying an ORD would receive the agency’s System Efficiency through Commercialization, Utilization, Relevance, and Evaluation (SECURE) certification.

The commercialization program’s first test of a new product kicked off with a bang last year, when S&T blew up a retired Maryland Transit Agency bus at the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground. Inside were 16 video cameras, all hardened to withstand the blast. While the cameras could be sacrificed, what S&T wanted was their memory chips.

The test stemmed from requests from the Transportation Security Administration and authorities in New York; Washington, D.C.; Chicago; and Seattle for a camera that could collect video for forensic examination, even after an explosion. Two companies’ units passed the test: one from Videology Inc. of Greenville, Rhode Island; and the other from Visual Defence-USA of Alexandria, Virginia. Both await SECURE certification pending further testing.

More than 40 products are in development based on cooperative research agreements signed by S&T and vendors. There are 43 more ORDs in development, Cellucci says. “If they’re aligned to the program requirements, they get the seal,” Cellucci says.

Intellectual property rights. Ownership of intellectual property (IP) developed across the government R&D spectrum can vary by project. At Sandia, for example, intellectual property generated by researchers is most often held by the federal agency that funded the project. At Brookhaven, most intellectual property is held by Brookhaven Science Associates, a collaboration between Stony Brook University and research firm Battelle, that manages the lab.

Under S&T, intellectual property ownership is often determined through cooperative research agreements—contracts between the agency and developers. Those working with the government should carefully consider IP in their contract negotiations.

In government’s effort to help industry navigate the technological path toward better security solutions, S&T is “a new kid on the block,” and its funds are limited, says Walker, a veteran of defense research and development. Even so, its contribution may end up being significant if its targeted and segmented approach pays off as intended.

Joseph Straw is an assistant editor at Security Management.