SPECIAL REPORT: DHS takes inspiration from tragedy

Advance research agency sees opportunity from Katrina, power blackout, other events to solve large-scale problems. Technologies are high risk, but high payoff.

By Jason Miller
Executive Editor

Preventing future levee breaches — check.

Bringing your coffee or a full sized shampoo on an airplane — check.

Keeping the electricity flowing during a power surge — check.

These are three of the programs that the Homeland Security Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (HSARPA) has high hopes to be ready for deployment in next two years.

Automated and fast inspection of all shipping containers and a real-time biological detection tool-still several years out.

Roger McGinnis, the director of innovation at HSARPA, says these are among the dozens of programs his office is currently overseeing and funding.

“We are looking to produce and get fielded projects in 1-to-5 years,” he says in an interview with FederalNewsRadio.

“We are looking for things that may be high risk but if successful is high payoff. That has been my mandate to look at the risk and reward chart and if there is high potential there, we will try it.”

HSARPA has a $35 million annual budget to fund research, development, testing and evaluation of solutions to address some of the country’s biggest challenges.

McGinnis says many of the needs come in the aftermath of events.

Take the levee repair program, McGinnis says after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, DHS and the Army Corps of Engineers worked on several different ideas for how in the future to quickly fix a breached levee.

“We initially talked about dropping titanium rods in place on water side of the breach and then put bags or other things up against them, but we would have to anchor them with explosives and the risk was too high because it could cause more breaches,” he says.

“Working with the Army Corps, we developed breaching ideas such as fish nets filled with trash or metal plates, but they couldn’t get good seals.”

The Army Corps then showed DHS another idea to use a water-filled tube that would use the water’s pressure to seal the breach.

McGinnis says he saw a test in Stillwater, Okla., and immediately knew they had something.

“We let the tube go and the water current flowing through the breach carried the tube up to the breach and the pressure of lake behind it sealed the hole,” he says. “It looked like a 98-to-100 percent of seal. So instead of fighting Mother Nature, we were using Mother Nature to help seal the breach. We immediately got calls wanting to buy it.”

McGinnis says DHS and the Army Corps will test a full size tube later this year, and if all goes well, they will open it up for a commercial company to produce the tubes and start selling them to state and local governments.

Another project with great potential is a magnetic vision system that uses low strength magnetic resonance imaging technology to detect combustible liquids.

McGinnis says the initial design of the device could only handle a small amount of liquid containers, and the goal is to develop a larger one that could analyze a suitcase.

“We will be doing that larger scale test in about 15 months as a proof of concept,” he says. “Then there will have to be few more years of engineering to make sure it can work in tandem with the current x-ray and detection machines.”

A third project that could be ready in the short term is a resilient electric grid cables.

McGinnis says this technology need came from the 2003 power surge in the Northeast that caused 256 power stations to go down.

“We now have developed cable with fault current limiter capabilities which means, these cables will allow only a certain amount of current to flow,” McGinnis says. “They act as their own current limiter.”

DHS successfully tested a 25 meter cable at the Oakridge National Lab, and hopes to test a 200-meter cable later this year.

McGinnis says the safe container technology and a real-time biological detection system are other important areas, but they may not be met for 3-5 years.

“We have to have a special kind of person who works for us,” he says. “As a program manager, you are told to take no risk, just deliver a product, and if you bring risk in that is bad. I have to bring in these people and say ‘Risk is OK, if the technology fails that is ok and it will not be detrimental to you or career or position.'”


On the Web:

FederalNewsRadio- SPECIAL REPORT: DHS focuses cyber research on commercial market

DHS– HSARPA Grant information

DHS– Science and Technology Directorate

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