Last week, a sui­cide bomber attacked Moscow’s busiest air­port, killing 35. Carey Rap­pa­port, pro­fessor of <b >elec­trical and com­puter engi­neering and asso­ciate director of both the <b >ALERT (Aware­ness and Local­iza­tion of Explosive-​​Related Threats) Center and <b >Gordon-​​CenSSIS (Bernard M. Gordon Center for Sub­sur­face Sensing and Imaging Sys­tems), describes some of Northeatern’s tech­no­log­ical advances in explo­sives detec­tion and home­land secu­rity, as well as some of the non­tech­nical chal­lenges researchers need to consider.

What research is ALERT con­ducting in the area of sui­cide bombing prevention?

Our research in ALERT looks at a variety of sen­sors to try to iden­tify poten­tial sui­cide bombers, including standoff and portal-​​based millimeter-​​wave radar and X-​​ray backscatter to iden­tify sus­pi­cious shapes of con­cealed objects, IR and Ter­a­hertz standoff spec­troscopy for trace-​​explosive detec­tion, video sur­veil­lance to look for unusual behavior, and elec­tronic sensing to detect hidden trig­gering devices. Some of the advanced tech­nology is mature but being brought to bear for new sit­u­a­tions, and some is brand-​​new basic research that would pro­vide novel detec­tion features.

<b >What must researchers keep in mind when devel­oping new bomb– imaging tech­niques so that trav­elers still feel at ease?

As with all prac­tical tech­nology devel­op­ment, we must put our­selves into the shoes of those who will expe­ri­ence the tech­nology. Health, pri­vacy, dig­nity, expense, and time are impor­tant aspects that cannot be over­looked. Of course, there are some health and engi­neering prob­lems that are so tough to solve that they require extreme mea­sures (like chemotherapy or the Big Dig), but we should always be asking our­selves if there’s a better way to detect without being too intru­sive. If ter­ror­ists hide things in embar­rassing places, secu­rity offi­cers will have to search in embar­rassing places. But it would be best if the searching could be done using tech­nology instead of humans.

<b >How do air­port secu­rity mea­sures differ internationally?

Air­port secu­rity is con­stantly in a state of flux, with poli­cies changing some­times between one’s vaca­tion arrival and depar­ture. I’ve noticed in Europe and Asia that secu­rity doesn’t make you take off your shoes, but does require that belts, jew­elry and wal­lets be removed. In some coun­tries there is more emphasis on inter­viewing trav­elers as they go through secu­rity. It is inter­esting that the Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­rity rarely shares details about secu­rity tech­nology devel­op­ment inter­na­tion­ally, but we expect other coun­tries to scru­ti­nize trav­elers as well as the U.S. does.