ALERT renewed as homeland security Center of Excellence

August 23, 2013

The Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­rity Sci­ence and Tech­nology Direc­torate has announced the renewal of Northeastern’s Aware­ness and Local­iza­tion of Explo­sives Related Threats Center as a DHS Center of Excel­lence. This dis­tinc­tion, given to just 12 research cen­ters in the nation, is accom­pa­nied by a five-​​year funding com­mit­ment, including $2.5 mil­lion in the first year.

Head­quar­tered at North­eastern, ALERT is a major con­sor­tium of uni­ver­sity and industry part­ners across the country and in Israel.  The Uni­ver­sity of Rhode Island will con­tinue as Northeastern’s prin­cipal partner at the center.

“Explo­sives detec­tion remains a crit­ical ele­ment in the pur­suit of a more secure home­land,” said Stephen W. Director, provost and senior vice pres­i­dent for aca­d­emic affairs. “ALERT’s renewal as a DHS Center of Excel­lence under­scores Northeastern’s long­standing com­mit­ment to use-​​inspired research in the area of secu­rity that addresses one of the most pressing chal­lenges facing our country today.”

ALERT’s focus areas include fail­-safe screening of lug­gage and cargo; elim­i­nating the avail­ability of illegal explo­sives mate­rials; and detecting long dis­tance threats as well as the pres­ence of very minute sam­ples of explo­sives residue on clothing. While all of these remain dis­tant goals, they define the research and testing pro­grams on which ALERT will concentrate.

The renewal builds upon Northeastern’s strong rela­tion­ship with DHS and com­mit­ment to security-​​related research ini­tia­tives. This includes Pres­i­dent Joseph E. Aoun’s sup­port of restoring home­land secu­rity research funding and his work as a member of an aca­d­emic advi­sory council for the Depart­ment of Home­land Security.

“We ask our­selves, what are the grand chal­lenges that we need to address if we’re going to have a major impact in the field,” said founding director Michael Sile­vitch, the Robert D. Black Pro­fessor in Northeastern’s Depart­ment of Elec­trical and Com­puter Engi­neering. “I am proud that our team will con­tinue to con­tribute to the Department’s crit­i­cally impor­tant mis­sion of home­land security.”

The ALERT team com­prises co-​​director Jimmie Oxley of the Uni­ver­sity of Rhode Island as well as research leaders Carey Rap­pa­port, ALERT’s asso­ciate director and a pro­fessor of elec­trical and com­puter engi­neering at North­eastern; David Cas­tañón of Boston Uni­ver­sity; and Stephen Beau­doin of Purdue Uni­ver­sity. The team merges exper­tise in advanced sensor design; standoff weak-​​target detec­tion; signal pro­cessing; sensor inte­gra­tion; explo­sives char­ac­ter­i­za­tion; impro­vised explo­sive device det­o­nator sig­na­tures; and iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of sig­na­tures of the pres­ence of very small traces of explo­sives on clothing and other sus­pi­cious objects.

With the grand chal­lenges defined, the research team develops new tech­nolo­gies and approaches for addressing them. In many cases, these methods are then directly tested in real-​​world sit­u­a­tions at loca­tions such as the Cleve­land Hop­kins Inter­na­tional Air­port and Boston Logan Inter­na­tional Air­port. For example, video sys­tems that detect anom­alous behavior—such as a person moving against the flow of traffic and ille­gally entering a secure area of the air­port terminal—have been used in live demon­stra­tions with real passengers.

If the algo­rithms are reli­able they will be adapted as tools for the Trans­porta­tion Secu­rity Admin­is­tra­tion oper­a­tors. ALERT cur­rently has sys­tems being readied for com­mer­cial roll-out in the areas of lug­gage screening and anomaly detection.

Learn more about the College of Professional Studies Master’s in Homeland degree program, which partners with ALERT.