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.”

The ALERT research team develops new technologies and approaches that have been tested at airports in Boston and Cleveland. For example, video systems that detect anomalous behavior have been used in live demonstrations with real passengers.

The ALERT research team develops new tech­nolo­gies and approaches that have been tested at air­ports in Boston and Cleve­land. For example, video sys­tems that detect anom­alous behavior have been used in live demon­stra­tions with real passengers.

ALERT’s focus areas include fail­safe 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 rollout in the areas of lug­gage screening and anomaly detection.