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DHS science and technology puts innovation first

Dr. Roger McGinnis | Department of Homeland Security

It is a dangerous world out there, where threats — both manmade and natural — are predictably unpredictable.

We cannot always find answers in an off-the-shelf toolbox.

That is the thinking here in the Homeland Security Department’s Science and Technology Directorate, where we spend a small portion of our research and development (R&D) budget on high-risk, high-payoff ideas.


Dr. Roger McGinnis is Director of the Homeland Security Advanced Research Project Agency at the Department of Homeland Security.

Each year, DHS S&T identifies ideas that, while extremely challenging from a technological standpoint, would change the game in favor of homeland security if they are successful. These ideas become projects that are run out of the Homeland Security Advanced Research Project Agency (HSARPA).

This is a place where, with some very cutting edge technologies and unbounded imagination, the improbable is challenged and made possible.

Such high-profile risk taking is not for the faint of heart, particularly for scientists, engineers and program managers who are trained to contain risk rather than embrace it.

Ask me what sort of significant technological breakthroughs S&T would like to see in the next three-to-five years, and I would say the first is in the area of security screening.

Currently Americans and travelers everywhere undergo security screening at airports, mass transit systems and places where large crowds gather such as stadiums, arenas and even theme parks.

We have all come to accept the screening as a necessary requirement to ensure our safety.

However, I am very hopeful that we can develop technologies that will help reduce the wait time, stress, inconvenience and general burden placed on the public and security screening personnel.

We all know that today at we are limited in the amount of liquids we can carry on aircraft and we are required to follow the 3-1-1 rule.

We are also no longer shocked when asked to remove our shoes and coats and to remove our computers from our carry-on luggage.

However, these steps are time consuming and often a stress-inducing process. It was the desire to remove some of the security screening “hassle” while increasing safety that led to the start of the Magnetic Visibility (MAGVIZ) program.

This project is investigating the use of a very low power magnetic resonant imaging system to identify all liquids and gels that individuals might want to carry onto an aircraft or into other secure locations.

Another project designed to speed up the security screening process is the Future Attributes Screening Technology (FAST) program.

The main goal of the program is to enhance detection of malintent or the intent to cause harm by the use of technologies to enhance the capabilities of screening agents.

We believe this will greatly reduce the number of individuals asked to step into a secondary screening area.

This program is designed to look specifically at behavioral and physiological indicators without any need to access personally identifiable data for that individual.

We also believe that the technology has by default an unbiased screening ability.

We have successfully demonstrated the first and second phases of this particular project and hope to have fully integrated multi-sensor system demonstration in 2011.

We are also working on critical infrastructure projects such as the resilient electric grid project. This initiative uses a new type of power cable that prevents shorted power lines from causing rolling blackouts like the kind the United States experienced in 2003 and 2006.

HSARPA just completed a successful demonstration of this technology, proving the new cable could limit the amount of current flow cause by a short and prevent the fault from cascading.

We are also working on systems that will:

  • * Quickly repair breached levees;
  • * Rapidly seal off sections of tunnels to prevent the spread of fire and dangerous gases;
  • * Harden security cameras to allow video images to be collected for forensic purposes in the event of a blast, fire, natural disaster or crime;
  • * Develop extremely small chemical detection chips that can be integrated into personal communication devices, such as cell phones;
  • * Develop an entirely new method for detection of biological agents;
  • * Non-intrusively detect dangerous agents inside shipping containers;
  • * Create a non-contact fingerprint detection system to speed up the process of fingerprint collections and increase the accuracy of those prints collected;

Bottom line?

We are pushing the technology envelope and working on extremely challenging projects to improve our safety and security with the hope of giving back to our citizens some of the freedoms we enjoyed prior to 9/11.

Dr. Roger McGinnis is Director of the Homeland Security Advanced Research Project Agency at the Department of Homeland Security.

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