Suicide bombers, improvised explosive devices and the threats of chemical or biological weapons are creating increased demand for cutting edge technologies that can detect or survey potential hazards from stand-off distances.
Every year, the multi-agency Technical Support Working Group disperses seed money for companies large and small that can solve some of the nation’s most pressing and challenging security issues. Researchers, engineers and company representatives packed an auditorium at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center for the agency’s annual industry day.
While none of the working group’s officials said it directly, the ability to detect dangers from stand-off distances emerged as a major need this year.
Up for grabs is anywhere from $80 million to $100 million for firms, universities or even lone inventors working out of their garages to get projects off the ground.
Securing these funds is not easy, though. TSWG’s shopping list contains many items that simply don’t yet exist and can keep even the most talented engineers awake at night pondering possible solutions.
Take for example, the portable shoulder-fired missile detection system. The Defense and Homeland Security Departments would like the ability to detect a man-portable air defense system missile within a five-kilometer perimeter before it is launched. TSWG wants to know if they can be detected when a potential adversary first flips the switch and activates the electronics.
And if that weren’t hard enough, TSWG wants the system to give aircraft pilots enough time to take evasive maneuvers. The sensor must be concealable so adversaries don’t know it’s there. It must be small enough to be picked up and moved to other locations. And in cases where it must be left behind, it needs anti-tampering and self-destruct features.
Explosive ordnance disposal robots are commonly used in homeland security — as well as in Iraq and Afghanistan — to detect and disable bombs. TSWG would like a “low cost” hovering unmanned aerial vehicle to complement them.
“We want a God’s eye view of that area,” said Anthony Detrick, manager of TSWG’s improvised explosive device defeat division.
A system that can hover for at least 15 minutes, function indoors and outdoors in harsh conditions, and send back color pictures in high resolution isn’t a great technological hurdle. However the operative words are “low-cost.”
“The end-unit cost of a developed system shall be less than $5,000, with a preferred cost of less than $3,000,” the proposal said.
Other challenges involving stand-off detectors include:
• Suicide Bomber Portable Detection System. The sensor must covertly pick a potential suicide bomber in a crowd from a “safe distance.” It must be light enough to be carried by two people, operated in all conditions — including corrosive ocean-side climates — ready to operate within 30 minutes, and easy to use. And most importantly, it cannot pose a health risk to the general public or its operators.
• Stand-Off Patient Triage. A hand-held emergency triage device is needed in the event of a mass casualty situation involving hazardous materials. The detector must be able to quickly tell medical personnel if a victim is alive or dead. Again, it must do so from a safe distance.
• Stand-Off Detection of Clandestine Laboratories. TSWG will entertain ideas for detecting clandestine labs where explosives, weapons of mass destruction or illegal drugs are manufactured. The device must fit in a van and be able to identify what is being cooked up from distances of at least 30 meters.
It undoubtedly was coincidence that a Government Accountability Office report that chided the military for being unprepared to respond to chemical attacks surfaced the same day when a chlorine tanker crashed into an Iraqi cafe.
Six persons were killed and dozens more were injured in the terrorist attack.
Members of the chemical, biological , radiological, nuclear, high-explosive (CBRNE) defense community have warned for years about the possible use of toxic industrial chemicals such as chlorine, which may not be as deadly as the weaponized gases such as sarin, VX or tabun, but are easier to acquire.
“Most Army units tasked with providing chemical and biological defense support are not adequately staffed, equipped, or trained to perform their missions,” said the report, which is entitled, “Management Actions Are Needed to Close the Gap between Army Chemical Unit Preparedness and Stated National Priorities.” The report blamed the transfers of chem-bio specialists to other units to support the ongoing wars.
The National Guard CBRNE units are in worse shape because of personnel shortages caused by overseas deployments, the report said.
Even though 12 of the 15 national planning scenarios, which spell out catastrophic events threatening homeland security, are CBRNE related, the ability of National Guard and Reserve units to respond to such attacks is “doubtful,” the report said.
GAO recommended the Army draw up a plan to address the “long-standing chemical unit personnel shortages that have been exacerbated by ongoing operations…”
A plan isn’t needed, the Defense Department said in a written response to the report. Current recruitment goals call for “100 percent fill of all units.”
Two days after the report’s release, a second improvised chemical bomb detonated south of Baghdad killing two more civilians and injuring another 60.
With more than 50 U.S. companies involved in the unmanned aerial vehicle market, the pressure for the Federal Aviation Administration to approve their use in domestic air space is growing.
Progress, although slow, is being made, said the senior FAA official in charge of approving applications. As for the day when unmanned drones ply the skies with the same ease as general or commercial manned aviation, don’t hold your breath, he told a conference of eager industry representatives.
The United States is in “day one” of the transformative technology, said Anthony Ferrante, director of the FAA’s air traffic oversight service. “We really want to evolve this technology, but we want to do that under the ‘do no harm’ policy,” he said at an Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International conference.
While UAVs have proven their worth in Iraq, Afghanistan and other combat theaters, the FAA has control of domestic air space. Regulations for UAV use are not in place, and won’t be anytime soon. The agency only set up an office to oversee the budding industry last year. As of March, the office hadn’t filled all its positions because Congress hadn’t approved a budget for 2007.
So far the only way to fly a UAV outside restricted air space is to get a “certification of authorization” from the office or an “experimental” license. These are only good for individual aircraft, not models or programs. For example, when Bell Helicopter Textron’s Eagle Eye rotorcraft being developed for the Coast Guard crashed last year, the company lost its FAA approval.
Because of the FAA restrictions, and the fact that there are no federal regulations yet, UAV use in domestic air space has been rare. Some saw limited action doing damage assessment during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has flown a few into tropical storms to gather weather data. U.S. Customs and Border Protection has employed a Predator B to patrol the Southern border, and will move the program up north this summer. Last year, CBP’s first drone crashed in the Arizona desert. No one on the ground was injured, but the accident didn’t help the industry’s reputation.
Law enforcement is among the many sectors clamoring to use UAVs.
Ferrante said one company has been marketing a small surveillance aircraft and telling local police departments that FAA regulations written in 1981 governing the use of model airplanes paves the way for their use.
Not so, he said. A notice clarifying the rule was published in the Federal Register in February.
DHS scrapped the notion of requiring states to use radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology to ensure the cards are machine readable in all jurisdictions when it released its long-awaited rules on the controversial REAL ID act.
DHS thwarted a nationwide rebellion in March by introducing flexibility to the act one year before it was intended to go into effect. The legislation aims to create nationwide standards so every state-issued ID can be read in all jurisdictions.
DHS will recommended states use the 2-D bar codes already found on the back of many state-issued driver’s licenses today. No states currently use RFID on drivers’ licenses.
DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff said in the past that he was a fan of RFID technology, but the department seems to have soured on its use. REAL ID was the second hit against the technology at DHS that month.
The US-VISIT program, which intends to track the departures of foreign visitors leaving the United States, also abandoned RFID. The program had undergone several tests to track the feasibility of reading visas or other documents as visitors walked or drove through ports of entry.
Privacy watchdog groups had raised concerns about criminals who could covertly read RFID cards with scanners. Chertoff said no information will be contained in the machine-readable strip that doesn’t already appear on the face of the card.
“I don’t think that technology increases the threat to privacy,” Chertoff said at a press conference. “Whether you read the card and copy it down or whether you run the magnetic strip through like you do with a credit card, I think the bottom line is the person who gets the card can read the information. The key is they have to be prohibited from misusing the information … that’s where we ought to be focusing our attention.”
The Citizens Against Government Waste, one of the most vocal opponents against RFID use in the REAL ID program, declared victory, and claimed it helped save taxpayers $4.4 billion to $8.4 billion, assuming the cost of the average license to a driver would have increased from $10 to $93.
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