Doctoral student J.J. Wang
Doctoral student J.J.Wang works on a millimeter-wave sensor as a member of J.C. Chiao's research team.
"With the appropriate design, they [millimeter waves] can see through smoke or fog, dust and clouds, clothing and most kinds of packaging."

Safer at home

Work described as 'revolutionary' could have a far-reaching impact on homeland security

Like science-fiction heroes, two University of Texas at Arlington researchers and a former professor are quietly perfecting highly technical ways to “hear through the silence, see through the darkness.”

Sounds like a far-fetched screenplay prologue, but J.C. Chiao, Sajal Das and Behrooz Shirazi truly are scientists, and their homeland security research is anything but fiction. It is far-seeing with potentially vast implications for both the nation’s security and for innumerable commercial and quality-of-life enhancements.

Consider the research of electrical engineering Associate Professor Chiao, who’s designing low-cost, low-power, highly portable millimeter-wave sensors that can see through smoke or dust storms while also detecting toxic chemicals.

Or the SafetyNet surveillance work of former computer science and engineering Professor Shirazi. His endeavors to speed the evolution of crime-fighting technologies to provide homeland security for everything from national borders to seaports has been described as a “revolutionary solution.”

Then there’s a close cousin to the above, the research of an interdisciplinary group led by computer science and engineering Professor Das. His team’s endeavors in pervasively secure infrastructures could establish an unprecedented marriage of computer technology and software with sensor systems that either prevent or help the nation recover from natural or inflicted disasters.

Sensing a threat
Working with National Science Foundation grants, Dr. Chiao is exploring potential millimeter-wave systems for a variety of applications, from crash avoidance systems in planes and automobiles, to non-invasive tools to detect bombs, chemical devices, weapons that are not constructed with metals, or potentially dangerous sources of radiation.

“Millimeter waves occupy the spectral portion of the electromagnetic frequency between infrared and radio waves,” Chiao explained. “With appropriate design, they can see through smoke or fog, dust and clouds, clothing and most kinds of packaging.”

The major trouble with millimeter systems is the extremely high cost, so Chiao and other researchers are developing manufacturing processes that in many ways parallel techniques used to fashion toys through plastic molding and embossing. The result should dramatically reduce production costs and provide an efficient tool—a new kind of eyes—for homeland security.

The private sector is exploring the UT Arlington research for other applications.

“It makes sense to say that the manufacturing processes we are developing are an enabler to many potential applications,” Chiao said. “Right now, there are no such manufacturing processes, but we will demonstrate those processes, verify the performance and show the road maps to industry for applications.”

Securing perimeters
The United States is a giant country with so many points of vulnerability that providing security for critical resources becomes extremely difficult.

Guards can’t be everywhere, but security for ports, borders and electricity transfer stations needs to be. Current sensor technology can capture movement, image and sound, but the level of input is so enormous that it defies interpretation and also is subject to human error.

“What you really want is an automated system to provide at least detection and possibly alleviation of security threats,” Dr. Shirazi said. “You want this to essentially happen 24-7 through an automated process. We are proposing to use pervasive computing and software technology to design and develop both revolutionary and evolutionary solutions.”

Put simply—perhaps too simply for such a complex field—computer systems with highly sophisticated software will read sensors, detect problems and call in human assistance when needed.

For now, the research focuses on what Shirazi calls “perimeters.”

“It’s a synergistic mix of technologies, because there is no one universal solution to every perimeter security problem. At the ports they’ll mostly be deploying sonar sensors so they can keep track of movement in the water, particularly under water. At the land borders you’d probably want to deploy video and image data to analyze and identify what’s taking place.”

Shirazi is interested in interfacing SafetyNet technology with radio frequency identification.

RFID chips on shipping containers, in coordination with surveillance software, could track a container from carrier to carrier and show what the cargo is, who’s carrying it and where it is at any given time.

Tests of the systems are planned with the assistance of Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (harbor surveillance) and UT El Paso (border surveillance).

Some of the current research is supported via almost $2 million in grants from the National Science Foundation and the high-tech company Advanced Acoustic Concepts. An additional appropriation from Congress is under consideration.

“This global border/perimeter security system will combine AAC’s integration and sensor expertise with an intelligent wireless networking infrastructure developed by UT Arlington,” said Sam Pascarelle, a senior systems engineer with AAC. “The research there will essentially be the backbone of the proposed system. It will provide for intelligent wireless transfer of data from distributed remote sensors and optimal use of the data once they are received.”

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, applauds the collaboration between industry and Texas academia.

“We need to pursue new technologies that will better protect our service members while in port,” she said. “The partnership between these leading universities and AAC has the potential to offer an innovative safety solution to our military, research contracts ... and hands-on experience for area students.”

Preventing disasters
Dr. Das’ nine-person team of researchers from three universities (UT Arlington, Pennsylvania State University and the University of Kentucky) is large but has an even larger mission: to prevent or help recover from natural and inflicted disasters.

“We propose to create a novel technology-enabled security framework called pervasively secure infrastructures (PSI),” said Das, director of the Center for Research in Wireless Mobility and Networking (CReWMaN). “It will make use of such advanced technologies as smart sensors, wireless mobile networks, RFID technology, mobile agents, data mining and profile-based learning.”

Once installed, such a security system will be almost self-learning, self-adjusting.

“It’ll be able to handle dynamically changing information, adapt to changing situations and provide scalability in terms of the number of users, devices and data sizes,” Das said.

Where could such a system be utilized? Think of almost any safety, security or surveillance situation in which around-the-clock security is critical.

“That includes transportation amenities,  including air, rail and highways, public utilities ranging from water plants and nuclear power stations to the Internet, and public or private buildings as varied as airports and train stations to a shopping mall or amusement park,” Das said.

A critical component of such a system is what Das terms “intelligent situation awareness.”

“It will quickly detect and recognize threats and even help provide and alert security services,” he said.

The multi-university research is funded by the National Science Foundation, providing $1.6 million in underwriting via its Information Technology Research program. Das’ collaborations on this and other projects include Nokia, Nortel, Intel, Texas Instruments, the IBM Watson Research Center, NASA Ames Research Center, Cyneta Networks, GlobeRanger and ZMS Technologies.

Individually and collectively, researchers Das, Shirazi and Chiao are working to make dramatic contributions to the nation’s homeland security. Their work represents cutting-edge advances involving significant blends of multiple technologies.

Call them high-tech heroes.

— O.K. Carter