News & Events
Transitioning Technology

ALERT researchers work to develop robust Canine Training Aids December 16, 2015

Because of their volatility, explosives are rarely used pure, they are often mixed with other materials such as polymers. Explosives are exposed to polymers for a variety of reason: (1) when they are “plasticized” for shaping; (2) when they are encased for safe handling, (e.g. dog training aids); and (3) when they are collected for forensic evidence or storage. ALERT has focused on finding the best materials for developing devices such as these.

As a result of our study of polymer/HME interactions, ALERT researchers have developed a method of polymer encapsulation that is used to create safe trace explosive sources for canine and instrument training. Polycarbonate microspheres containing only a low percentage of TATP have been demonstrated to last for years, yet produce pure TATP vapor when heated at the designated program rate. This approach provides canine handlers and instrument vendors with safe access to stored hazardous explosives at trace levels for use in detection, calibration, and validation of instruments as well and the training of explosives detecting canines.

ALERT has received enthusiastic support from law enforcement and instrument vendors and are in negotiation for possible licensing with a commercial vendor. In the near term, law enforcement agencies and instrument vendors are able to request these training aids directly from ALERT.

Oxley said “Some of our biggest service clients are law enforcement agencies. When some of the improvised devices came into vogue, they were too sensitive for law enforcement agencies to handle.” Oxley explained that for the Popular Science crew, her team not only conducted a demonstration, but ran a test to determine if the dogs detect pseudo explosives as they do the real explosives.

“It worked and we were really excited, because this was a first-time run during which the dogs were testing both,” said the chemistry professor and co-coordinator of the URI Forensic Science Partnership. “We wanted to make sure they could associate one with the other; that was an extremely important task.

“With K-9s, we are looking at the odor signature, and we have to do that on an explosive-by-explosive basis,” she said.She added that Metropolitan Transit Authority police took advantage of training opportunities at URI long before other groups, but more and more agencies are seeking training, including the federal Transportation Security Administration, which has rotated dozens of agents through the URI campus this summer.

Photo caption: Sgt. Bill Finucane of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority Police Department in New York works with McCarney, one of the department’s dogs, while testing canine explosive training aids developed by URI’s Jimmie Oxley and her team.

ADSA12 Final Report Now Available October 19, 2015

We are pleased to announce that the ADSA12 Workshop Final Report is now available for download at the following link:

ADSA12 Final Report – Personnel and Divested Items Screening at the Checkpoint

If you have any questions regarding the topics and technologies discussed at the workshop, please contact Carl Crawford at

TESSA02 Workshop Announced July 1, 2015

ALERT is pleased to announce it will be hosting the Second “Trace Explosives Sampling for Security Applications” (TESSA02) Workshop, which will be held on August 5th, 2015 at Northeastern University in Boston, MA. The title of the workshop will be “Fundamentals and Advances in Trace Sampling and Detection.” The TESSA02 Workshop, held in 2014, was the first in the series to deal with the development of a roadmap for understanding contact sampling for trace explosives detection. The topic of contact sampling was chosen for the workshop in order to support the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) objective of improving the performance of existing technologies.

For more information, visit the TESSA02 Workshop event page here!

ALERT Research Featured in The New York Times July 1, 2015

ALERT “Tag-and-Track” video surveillance research was featured in a recent New York Times article, which discussed the video analytics project being led by Prof. Octavia Camps and Prof. Mario Sznaier at Northeastern University.

The software developed by Profs. Camps and Sznaier, along with their fellow researchers and students, uses airport security cameras to detect suspicious behavior by passengers. The article makes note of the high success rate and capabilities of the software, as it is currently in use at the Cleveland Hopkins International Airport to detect passengers who try to enter secure areas of the airport through an exit lane.

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ALERT Continues to Foster Collaboration at ADSA12 Workshop July 1, 2015

On May 12-13, 2015, the Twelfth Advanced Development for Security Applications Workshop (ADSA12) was held at Northeastern University in Boston, MA. The workshop focus was, “Screening of Personnel and Divested Items at the Checkpoint,” and was a continuation of the first workshop, ADSA01. The topic was chosen in order to support the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) objective of improving the performance of existing technologies and to improve the passenger experience at checkpoints. Another goal of the workshop was to support DHS’s objective to increase the participation of third parties, such as researchers from academia, national labs, and industry other than the incumbent vendors, in algorithm and system development for security applications.

The following topics were addressed at the workshop: emerging hardware; emerging algorithms and processes; improving the passenger experience and assessing and using risk. The topics were addressed from the perspectives of the TSA, airlines, and passengers.

The key findings from the workshop on what can be done to solve the checkpoint problems are: use of risk based screening including under-screening; improved concept of operations; integrating systems and data; setting standards for systems interfacing, data integration and testing in lab and field; developing better hardware and reconstruction software and identifying orthogonal technologies.

The next workshop, ADSA13, is scheduled for the fall of 2015, will be a continuation of ADSA12 and will concentrate on the following topics: trace and standoff detection; video analytics; application to mass transit and federal buildings; fusing orthogonal technologies; explosive threats; networking; laboratory and red-team testing; third party development of Automated Threat Recognition and reconstruction algorithms; machine learning; prevalence shifting; (trading off Probability of Detection for Probability of False Alarm); concept of operations; measuring and using risk; deterrence; and case studies.

Naval Academy Midshipmen Participate in ALERT Research July 1, 2015

Annapolis Naval Academy Midshipmen, Andrew Kelly and Gabe Lackey, are spending a month this summer doing ALERT research at the University of Rhode Island (URI), in Kingston, RI. Andrew and Gabe are Systems Engineering majors and have elected to use this time to work with the URI Energetic Materials Research Group. Their work includes hands-on experience with a myriad of aspects of explosives research at both the laboratory scale and in the field. Projects include using various instruments for physical characterization of both military explosives and homemade/improvised energetic materials.

Midshipman Lackey (pictured, middle) has said of his experiences,

“It has been very interesting to see the ‘behind the scenes’ process that takes an idea and eventually lets it reach the front lines, helping sailors, marines, and all military men and women.”

Midshipman Kelly (pictured, far right) says of his experiences working with ALERT scientists at URI,

“Working alongside the graduate students under Dr. Oxley has been informative in linking the numerous research areas to future military application, as well as what is currently being used.”

ADSA12 Presentations Now Available June 10, 2015

We are pleased to announce that the ADSA12 Workshop presentations are now available for download at the following link:

If you have any questions regarding the topics and technologies discussed at the workshop, please contact Carl Crawford at

ALERT leads Tutorial at IEEE Symposium on Technologies for Homeland Security April 16, 2015

ALERT led one of two tutorials given at the 2015 IEEE Symposium on Technologies for Homeland Security on April 14th, 2015. The tutorials launched a three day event which included a plenary talk by Dr. Reginald Brothers, the Under Secretary of Homeland Security for Science and Technology, and four research tracks focused on key homeland security topics:

  • Cyber Security,
  • Attack and Disaster Preparation, Recovery, and Response,
  • Land and Maritime Border Security
  • Biometrics & Forensics.

The tutorial provided an introduction to explosive threat sensing technologies to over 25 representatives from educational institutions, national labs, DHS, and members of the private security industry.

ALERT Director, Prof. Michael Silevitch began the session by providing an overview of ALERT’s mission, research areas, industrial partnerships, and current technology transition efforts.  After a brief Q&A, Jim Smith from the University of Rhode Island discussed how chemicals are classified as explosives and methods of trace detection. Dr. Smith presented what explosives tend to be found in improvised explosive devices and URI’s work in improving the detection of these types of materials. ALERT’s work in vapor detection, explosive residue detection, and canine explosive detection were all discussed.

For the second half of the tutorial, Prof. Octavia Camps presented techniques used within the video analytics domain to detect features, descriptors and invariants (fixed components) in video. She then discussed the process of inference used to classify video data. All of these components are in play in ALERT’s video analytic work. Octavia reviewed the VAST project, a collaboration with Siemens, the TSA and Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, by discussing the project’s contraflow (in-the-exit) and tracking in a crowded scene (tag and track) components. Prof. Camps also discussed ALERT’s partnership with VACCINE and the GCRTA to improve detection of known criminals within the rail system through video re-identification.

Carl Crawford closed the session with a presentation on X-ray based and millimeter wave detection technologies. After discussing the history of threats to air travel and current scanning processes, Dr. Crawford covered how false alarm rates are a substantial barrier to current technologies and what ALERT and its partners are doing to lessen its impact. ALERT technologies including detection diffraction systems, real time tomography systems, and active millimeter wave systems were presented by Dr. Crawford. ALERT’s work with third parties such as national labs, DHS security vendors and other academic intuitions to improve scanning rates and generate non-SSI research datasets were also highlighted.

The diverse audience engaged with center representatives regarding current ALERT partnerships, available research datasets, and in the field research projects. The tutorial included a productive discussion on the barriers of transitioning technology and opportunities for future collaborations in the tutorial’s domain. ALERT looks forward to continuing to support the Homeland Security Enterprise through events such as the IEEE Symposium.

New England Cable News (NECN) Interviews ALERT Researcher, Prof. Carey Rappaport, on Breast Imaging Research October 26, 2014

Prof. Carey Rappaport, ALERT researcher in the College of Engineering at Northeastern University, was recently interviewed by the New England Cable News about his team’s microwave breast imaging research for safer breast cancer screenings. Watch the interview below:


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ALERT Renames the ADSA workshops August 13, 2014

We are pleased to announce the renaming of the ADSA workshops from “Algorithm Development for Security Applications” to “Advanced Development for Security Applications.” This change reflects the fact that the scope of these workshops has expanded well beyond algorithms as the series has progressed.

For example, the following topics for development are now being addressed in these workshops: energy sources (e.g., X-ray, neutrons), sensors (e.g., photon counting X-ray detectors, trace), concept of operations, hardening, deterrence, simulants and testing. The acronym for the workshops, ADSA, will remain the same.

The Eleventh ADSA Workshop (ADSA11) has been scheduled for November 4th and 5th at Northeastern University in Boston, MA.  The title of the workshop will be “Explosive Detection in Cargo for Aviation Security – Part II.”