From DARPA to Main Street

Jan. 1, 2007
Technologies developed for Homeland Security are moving into the public sector

Technologies developed for Homeland Security are moving into the public sector

By Hans Kobler

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in Arlington, Va., has built a deserved reputation as the adrenalin that drives our armed forces technical innovation. Many products and processes that originate at DARPA often move beyond the military to civilian government, law enforcement, the commercial sector, and the public. The most obvious example of this is the Internet, which originated as the ARPANet, moved through the government and academe, and is now a ubiquitous part of everyday life in America and around the world.

There are other examples. Global positioning systems that allowed naval commanders to track the exact positions of ships at sea now enable a business traveler in a rental car to plot a course to the nearest Chinese restaurant. Simulation technologies that trained fighter pilots and tank commanders now entertain young imaginations at Disneyland. Satellites that provided critical information to military and national intelligence agencies now deliver hundreds of channels of Hollywood’s product to the nation’s family rooms, and enable students to view their homes from space via Google Earth.

While the eventual applications can be very consumer-oriented, DARPA’s core mission remains a very serious one: enabling ongoing national security for the United States. In the process of achieving this mission, valuable technologies continue to deliver residual benefits.

Popular follow-on customers between the military and the people it serves include civilian government, law enforcement, and private security. With the establishment of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its role to provide for security at and between the nation’s borders, many technological advances are moving rapidly from their U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) applications to DHS.

Secure Border Initiative

The Secure Border Initiative (SBI), a multiyear plan to secure America’s borders, is expected to help facilitate the strategic transfer of technology from DOD to Department of Homeland Security. This government-sanctioned rapid transfer of technology is thought by many to reflect new geopolitical realities, which have often blurred the lines between national and civil security. What was once a pure battlefield application can now be applied to border security and national infrastructure protection.

Such applications include detection and surveillance technologies, threat assessment products, methodologies, and software, and integrated solutions that bring these and other tools together for a variety of critical homeland security applications. In addition to our borders, such applications help protect U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) and other federal facilities, state and local government properties, public events, airports, train stations, power plants, harbors, and more. Certain technologies that already see broad mainstream use are now being modified, miniaturized, and otherwise adapted for border and civil security as well. A closer look at some representative solutions will help illustrate the magnitude of this effort.

Detection solutions

Detecting nonhuman threats in the modern era requires consideration of five broad threat areas: chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosive, known collectively as CBRNE. Each of these threats requires leading technologies to be deployed with regard to previously unheard-of configurations of size, durability, and other parameters. For example, consider how mass-spectrometry technology must change when it moves from the lab to the field.

Mass spectrometry is the standard laboratory technology for detecting, differentiating, and identifying trace levels of chemical compounds in complex chemical environments.

When mass spectrometry is applied in an environmental laboratory to ensure the chemical purity of a city’s drinking water, the laboratory environment can easily be controlled as needed. When mass spectrometry is applied in a border region, however, it must be small, lightweight, durable, and dust- and weather-resistant, in addition to being reliable and accurate.

The same is true for testing materials used to detect the presence of toxic agents on surfaces and people, monitors that alert first responders to the presence of airborne biological agents, and sensors to detect explosive materials on packages and people, or in, facilities and vehicles. While the private sector has become expert at deploying these technologies in a sterile lab environment, making them work at the border, near a structure fire, or at multiple entrances to a public event is another story altogether. Key to society’s success in meeting new threats will be building a new generation of advanced security products that are small enough and cheap enough for widespread use.

Surveillance solutions and beyond

Surveillance technologies often must also change when they move from the battlefield or the controlled environment to the places where border-patrol agents and urban first responders do their most critical work. Whether operating in the infrared, visible-light, microwave, or millimeter wavebands, many sensor technologies must be adapted to be viable in the homeland arena.

For example, high-performance radar systems that protect military facilities don’t need to adhere to the same size and aesthetic standards as the radars that protect civil installations. Current millimeter-wave perimeter security radars can now deliver impressive intrusion detection in harsh weather and conditions of poor visibility while not radically altering the landscape around sensitive infrastructure such as airports, harbors, bridges, and power plants.

Surface search radar units the size of a coffee can offer programmable operational modes, variable power settings, and Ethernet connectivity, to make leading-edge facility surveillance convenient and unobtrusive. Infrared and other types of sensors have also been stood up for public and commercial applications. Situational awareness technologies to help process the data from sensors have also been adapted for use by local first responders and the private sector.

In addition, infrared wavelength-tuned silicon chips are now available to function accurately, inexpensively, and unobtrusively at airports, power facilities, and even along identified surface routes. Surveillance technologies have adapted to provide what is needed in our homeland without dramatically altering our way of life.

Integrated solutions

Even with the best surveillance and detection equipment to support threat deterrence, additional knowledge, systems, processes, and other tools are needed to ensure that the discrete parts of a protective net are working together optimally.

Knowledge gained from counterterrorism activities, proven linguistic tools, sophisticated analytical programs, and other solutions have also been adapted from their primary battlefield applications to be useful in homeland security, first response, and private security environments. Software that supports foreign language word and name searches, genealogical searches, and transliteration and link-analysis capabilities has become available not only to CBP agents, but also to police departments, research facilities, knowledge management consultants, security specialists, and more.

Conflict has changed dramatically over the past few decades, and so too has the capacity of free nations to protect their citizens and domestic assets. The desire for strong national security is bringing about powerful technological developments, and also driving the transfer of technology from the battlefield to the backyard.

It is a testimony to American ingenuity that the tools of warfare, which also become tools of citizen protection, can be compelled by the will of the free market to enhance the quality and sanctity of life.

Hans Kobler is chief executive officer of ICx Technologies Inc. in Washington. Contact the company online at

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