Homeland security experts ask private sector for anti-terror technology

June 1, 2003
Can you design a machine that scans baggage for bombs, detects sea mines underwater, or transmits clandestine video signals?

By Ben Ames

WASHINGTON — Can you design a machine that scans baggage for bombs, detects sea mines underwater, or transmits clandestine video signals?

The federal government is asking these questions of the technology industry in the global fight against terrorism.

On May 14, planners at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) posted a request for 50 types of anti-terror tools in seven technology categories: nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) countermeasures; explosives detection; improvised (explosive) device defeat; infrastructure protection; investigative support and forensics; personnel protection; and physical security.

This image of Z-backscatter X-ray shows illegal aliens attempting to cross the border from Guatemala to Mexico. Z-backscatter reflects off certain materials rather than passing through them.
Click here to enlarge image


Most of the items specify improvements over existing machines, such as baggage scanners; most ask for COTS (commercial off the shelf) requirements, such as Windows software interfaces, standard computer video cards, and 110 volt AC for the power source.

But a few items on the list will demand custom-designed solutions, including:

  • a system to protect commercial jets from anti-aircraft missiles;
  • an underwater speaker to warn hostile scuba divers that they're swimming too close to a Navy vessel;
  • a way to recover data from computer disks that were intentionally erased; and
  • a method to seal-off a public hallway within two seconds after someone's broken through a security checkpoint.

The main focus of the technology request is on ways to detect and decontaminate chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear agents. More than half of the 50 items fall under the NBC countermeasures category. They include:

  • a method to reduce the impact of NBC agents in mass-transit terminals;
  • a way to scan ships and barges for nuclear material as they pass through waterway locks;
  • a network to quickly educate medical professionals about the details of an attack; and
  • portable drinking water purifier to filter out biological and chemical agents.

Many of these items already exist. One of the NBC requests is for a method to perform "efficient detection of high-z materials in cargo." Z-backscatter is a new type of x-ray that reflects off certain materials instead of passing right through them. It bounces best off objects with a low atomic number, such as hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen — which includes organic materials like drugs, explosives, human beings, and nuclear matter.

"We will definitely be offering this to the Technical Support Working Group," says Jackson Bain, a spokesman for American Science and Engineering (AS&E) in Billerica, Mass. The company makes stationary and mobile Z-backscatter scanners that are used today by DHS and the Department of Defense at seaports like Pearl Harbor, border crossings like the Tijuana-San Diego line, and at military bases around the world.

"The most difficult thing about deterring terrorist attacks is that we don't know where they're coming from, what vector they'll use," he says. "We have the broadest application of z-backscatter technology now being applied in a wide variety of vectors."

The list of products was compiled by DHS researchers in the Science and Technology directorate, in the operations directorates (Borders and Transportation Security, Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection, and Emergency Preparedness and Response), and by members of the Secret Service and the Coast Guard.

Replies are due by June 13. The Technical Support Working Group (TSWG), a multi-agency forum under supervision of the U.S. State Department, will analyze the products. DHS planners have budgeted $33 million for research and testing. Read more details about Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) # DAAD05-03-T-0024 online at www.bids.tswg.gov.

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