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Playing With Fire: Tools To Fight Terrorism

April 26, 2002
Sandia National Laboratories
Networked sensors to detect the movement of hostile forces and materials — and longer-term approaches for changing the environment in which terrorism breeds — are being developed at Sandia National Laboratories. Long-term fixes also include new ideas for monitoring borders, materials, and agents.
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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Networked sensors to detect the movement of hostile forces and materials — and longer-term approaches for changing the environment in which terrorism breeds — are being developed at Sandia National Laboratories. Long-term fixes also include new ideas for monitoring borders, materials, and agents.

Immediate work

In the near term, dozens of Sandia researchers over the next few months will develop sensor systems that identify and track large objects such as missile launchers in a desert environment. The ultimate intent over the next few years is to link hundreds of sensors that will identify and track people in urban environments.

The program, approved in February, began April 1 with funds of almost $2.5 million from Sandia’s Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD) office. The program makes use of Sandia“s strengths in sensor technologies, power sources, computing, robotics, and systems integration.

“The goal of this particular technology is to fight the current war on terrorism, rather than to develop something for the war we may fight five to 10 years from now,” says Dave Nokes, leader of the cross-laboratory team working on the project.

Impetus for the sensor program stems from a special study completed in February that was conducted by Sandia’s Advanced Concept Group (ACG) under the direction of vice president and senior scientist Gerry Yonas. (See below.)

Executive vice president Joan Woodard said program technologies will have applications to homeland security and combating terrorism, and that they eventually will be transferred to the private sector for other uses.

Other projects that could receive funding within the next six months include airport security, nonlethal weapons, buried targets, stealth delivery of materials, and infrastructure-related topics.

Playing with fire — a concept

While terrorism’s threat may never be ultimately eliminated, Yonas and ACG member John Whitley’s concept is to see the problem reduced technically and emotionally to the routine preventive measures currently employed to deal with fire.

Says Yonas, “At the turn of the 19th century, people lived in fear of fire. Loss of life was enormous. The question for us is how a society learned to live with unremitting terror by making investments in technology.”

Today, he says, water sprinkler systems, heat detection sensors and fire alarms are routinely installed in public buildings.

“If you could see through walls, you would see materials that meet fire codes. We have fire drills and three different kinds of fire extinguishers. We’re not terrified, we’re vigilant. Yet the problem is still real: yearly in the USA, fire kills 4,000 people and 89,000 fireman are injured.”

Says Whitley, “As we moved into the industrial age, technological advances led to major improvements in fire-fighting machinery. Steam-driven fire pumps, fire hoses, fire nozzles, fire engineers, central fire alarms, advanced communication systems — all these began. Now we have personal, affordable smoke detectors.”

“But the threat has advanced as well. The threat from candles is nearly gone, but electrical circuits and appliances required new measures. Like fire, terrorism will not be a static threat. We can count on them using our very defensive responses to create new threats.”

The only effective response, he says, “is a dynamic system that can reevaluate and update both the threat and our vulnerabilities and respond accordingly.”

The point, says Yonas, is “to restore the sense of safety and security available to the public before Sept. 11. We want to turn terrorism into a psychosocial problem similar to fire.”

A five-part proposal for reducing threat

Developing targets -- Ubiquitous, persistent observation of terrorist locations, combined with precision interdiction, is the portion of the program called TALON, for target acquisition, location, observation, and neutralization.

“Precision weapons without current, precise knowledge of target locations are pretty useless,” says Yonas. The ACG advocates networking small gadgets that might package a global positioning locator, sensor, RF communicator, and a small computer. These relatively inexpensive devices would be widely distributed and in contact with each other to give a comprehensive picture of enemy movements.

Friendly yet secure borders -- Borders must be highly permeable to trade, yet opaque to enemy transmission of goods or personnel.

The problem is how to augment the flow of trade and legitimate visitors while diminishing the number of harmful materials and agents.

Statistics demonstrate the size of the problem: in 1999, the United States was entered by 475 million people, 125 million vehicles, and 5 million maritime 40-foot containers. Meanwhile, 2.7 million undocumented immigrants are believed to enter the United States yearly. Total annual U.S. cocaine consumption can fit in 15 forty-foot containers.

The ACG advocates not only better gadgets but also a different mindset — instead of a border, a zone. Worldwide systems track the flow of goods, with cooperation from other friendly countries. Is a ship taking an unusually long time to complete a voyage or stopping at a port not generally essential to its route? Such methods won’t stop everything, but can reduce background noise — a necessary condition to improve probabilities for detecting true contraband.

Robust infrastructure -- A way to minimize damage from future terrorist attacks is to create a smarter, more durable infrastructure. Damage-resistant systems provide better static defense, along with “aware, intelligent” systems that mitigate damage, help rescue personnel, and restore services. Rapidly deployable services are needed to help a damaged area recover and sustain itself until more permanent facilities are brought in or built.

Intelligent systems demonstrate awareness of themselves, of the situation they are in, and of humans in the area.

The goal is to develop buildings that resist failing catastrophically, minimize losses in the face of attack, and are designed to counter threats from intelligent, active agents.

Coordinating response -- A fractal approach — small patterns that repeat larger patterns — to integrating security will help autonomous groups integrate data that currently remains in separate boxes. Targeted groups include law enforcement, intelligence, public health, first responders, scene commanders, local governments, and private citizens.

FACETS (fractal approach for clarifying and enabling timely support) proposes that information gathered by individuals and small or large groups should be collected in non-hierarchical fashion for easy integration and rapid understanding of intrinsically murky situations.

The fractal architecture means that larger and smaller groups will store information in a format that permits easy sharing via automated Net components throughout the integrated system. This will permit collating video images of people entering airports, for example, with background data gathered by other groups on that individual. Collating data in a semiautomatic fashion can generate alarms when individuals exceed certain parameters because all linked groups are immediately made aware of massing data. The system would work not only by collating a visual image of a person with his license to learn to fly a plane, but also alert firemen in a burning building that a second plane in the area is also off course.

Social setting in host country -- Gadgets can minimize damage but not the intent to cause it. “We need to know not only what motivates terrorists,” Yonas says, “but what might demotivate them.”

Understanding terrorists and the setting they come from in order to influence their culture, monitor their activities, detach those loosely affiliated, and deter those committed to terror are the goals of another ACG subgroup. This group (DICTUM, for dynamic, integrated capability for threat understanding and management) suggests integrating sociology, group theory, biology, and biosciences, as well as factoring in gang theory and the effects of racism. From these, scientists can establish norms of behavior and a massive database that analyzes phone call connections, meetings, travel patterns, and banking transactions among suspected or identified members of terrorist networks. Software tools for pattern recognition would identify and track suspicious behavior.

The work would complement attempts at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to work with neurosciences to develop models of learning, and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency’s exploration with Hollywood and the Artificial Intelligence community for creative, highly computerized scenarios to address similar goals as DICTUM.

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The above story is based on materials provided by Sandia National Laboratories. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

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Sandia National Laboratories. "Playing With Fire: Tools To Fight Terrorism." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 26 April 2002. <>.
Sandia National Laboratories. (2002, April 26). Playing With Fire: Tools To Fight Terrorism. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 22, 2015 from
Sandia National Laboratories. "Playing With Fire: Tools To Fight Terrorism." ScienceDaily. (accessed May 22, 2015).

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