In the month after the September 11 attacks, an obscure office in the still-smoldering Pentagon issued a plea for help: Please, America, send us your ideas for combating terrorism. The request prompted derision from late-night TV comics, while newspapers in Poland and Germany marveled how the world's most powerful military force had been reduced to advertising for advice on how to fight its enemies.
No matter. America's techno-wizards responded with a massive outpouring of ideas. Normally, the Pentagon's Technical Support Working Group (TSWG), which trolls for new technologies to help the military, gets about 900 proposals a year. But the October appeal garnered 12,500 brainstorms in just two months, "some of them literally from guys working alone in their garages," says John K. Reingruber, an official in the Pentagon's office of Special Operations & Low-Intensity Conflict. Most of the plans try to satisfy an extensive agency wish list ranging from ground-penetrating radar to detect hostile groups hidden in caves to a hair sample test to determine if a suspect has recently handled nerve gas. "There have been some very good submissions on that one," says top TSWG official Jeffrey David.
Typical of the idea merchants is Equator Technologies Inc., of Campbell, Calif., which is waiting on a response to five suggestions it submitted last December. The company makes superfast digital signal processors used in video cameras. It's working on an automated baggage inspection system that would use a database of images of weapons rotated through all possible planes of vision. Tests have shown that humans watching baggage scanners at airports miss many prohibited carry-on objects, since a gun laid on end may look more like a shaving-cream can than a weapon.
That's not even the really cool stuff. The company envisions a large array of boom-mounted cameras, each equipped with its own software to identify a terrorist whose facial measurements have been captured previously and reduced to digital measurements. A camera would match one face in a crowd with the stored digital measurements of a terrorist, transmit an alert and photo to the FBI over a wireless modem, and begin tracking the individual's movements. "Eventually, we could answer the question of `Where was John today?' We could go back and reconstruct his whole day," says John Setel O'Donnell, Equator's chief technology officer.
Some technology just needs to be tweaked a bit for counterterrorism use. Viisage Technology Inc., of Littleton, Mass., has surveillance cameras in 150 Las Vegas casinos to identify card counters and cheats. After September 11, it placed an upgraded prototype in airports in Boston, St. Petersburg, and Fresno, Calif. As passengers walk though the metal detector on their way to the gate, each face is scanned and reduced to a digitized map with 128 different measurements, such as jaw angle, slope of the cheek, and distance between the eyes. Viisage is building a database from police files, photos of known terrorists, and video images from the popular television show America's Most Wanted, says company President Thomas J. Colatosti.
Sometimes TSWG just asks industry a question. How, for example, can you tell if a bomb-sniffing dog in an airport is working on its assigned task or just hungrily searching for food? The Institute for Biological Detection Systems at Auburn University examined sniffing patterns and how they change as the dog approaches its target. Turns out that a hard-working dog has a very precise and rapid sniffing pattern of five times a second, far faster than a human could ever maintain but the most efficient pattern for sampling odors. The lab also answered the question of why some bomb-detection dogs seemed lazy while others worked like, well, dogs. "We found that canines that wanted to stop after 20 or 30 minutes were trained according to the culture that handlers wanted to follow," explains Paul Waggoner, program director. Handlers who took frequent coffee or cigarette breaks produced dogs with poor work habits. The discovery led to better training methods and more efficient dogs.
Galaxy Scientific Corp., of Egg Harbor Township, N.J., proposed a different solution. If explosives were hidden in a baggage-handling area, the dogs could be tested and their abilities honed. But using real explosives would contaminate the area for weeks, endanger the public, and even violate federal workplace-safety regulations. So Galaxy developed smell-alike chemicals without active ingredients that replicated the concentration of odors that a dog could find.
Many of TSWG's pet projects wind up in police hands or at local firehouses, airports, and border crossings. Bomb squads around the country use blast suits, explosives detectors, and bomb "disrupters" that break up devices with a pneumatic pulse. Police at the latest New Year's revelries in Times Square and security personnel at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City used handheld radiation detectors developed through TSWG. And at least some of the survivors of the September 11 attack on the Pentagon owe their lives to one such project to design buildings resistant to fire and collapse from bomb blasts. Portions of the Pentagon struck by hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 had already been bomb-hardened.
The decades-old war against terrorism in the U.S. has always relied more on high technology than G-men kicking down doors. TSWG actually got its start in 1983 after the bombing of the U.S. Marine Corps barracks in Beirut prompted the government to step up its counterterrorism efforts. Today the Pentagon and State Dept. sit atop 80 federal agencies and departments that help sift through the proposals and choose just 100 to 200 for research and development funding totaling $50 million to $100 million. Other TSWG agencies range from the Energy Dept. to the FBI, CIA, Federal Aviation Administration, and local police and fire departments. The group sends out an annual list of problems it is interested in solving, then evaluates the proposals. "We are operator-driven and threat-driven," says David. "How and when we do business is constantly changing."
TSWG's procurement budget may be small, but the overall pot of money it helps manage for dozens of federal agencies fighting terrorism is about to get much bigger. Bush's budget proposals call for $27.2 billion to battle terrorism, up from $10.5 billion this year. That should bring a boost to companies such as Science Applications International Corp., of San Diego, which makes radiological screening devices that can find a bomb in a moving railway car or truck or in a stationary backpack. "We like working with TSWG because they have a very practical approach to deciding what projects to fund," says Senior Vice-President Victor J. Orphan. "They give a quick response because that's what you need in fighting terrorism."
Not all of TSWG's programs are a success. The Pentagon once funded development of a special radio antenna that didn't make the mark. After extensive testing, the program manager admitted it picked up signals "no better than a chain link fence." But that was in keeping with TSWG's unofficial motto. "If you fail, fail right," says Reingruber. "Don't just fail because you didn't try everything or you stopped short." America's techno entrepreneurs, take note.
By Paul Magnusson in Washington