Like the rest of the country’s scientific research and development community, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) has been in the thick of COVID-19 mission work since the pandemic began more than a year ago. At the onset, much was unknown about the novel coronavirus that was making its way across the globe, but we knew one thing: leveraging relationships with our counterparts in other countries would only strengthen and accelerate our response.
S&T maintains strong individual relationships with its bilateral partners—Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Israel, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom (UK)—and is active in multilateral groups, such as the Five Research and Development (5RD) Council, the European Commission, NATO and the International Forum to Advance First Responder Innovation. Beyond the pandemic response, S&T has supported more than 400 research and development initiatives over the course of its 18-year history.
Through these international agreements, S&T (and the country as a whole) can have a hand in foreign research infrastructure, exchange critical global security information and best practices, and coordinate research on mutual issues of interest such as aviation security, bio-threats, border defense, counterterrorism, cybersecurity, emergency management and resiliency, technology innovation, and yes, combating the COVID-19 pandemic.
The United States also benefits from foreign partner technical expertise; for instance, S&T’s engagement with Canada has extended the threat detection perimeter beyond U.S. borders. To further deepen cooperative activities, S&T and Defence Research and Development Canada have even established an exchange officer program.
“Our network is like a web that we use to figuratively catch common problems, the resulting discussions, the best solutions. So, there’s sharing all around,” said Stephanie Okimoto, director of S&T’s International Cooperative Programs Office. “We need to maintain these relationships. We never know when one country will need to call on another, or when we all must lean on each other. To have the network in place and be able to speak with familiarity over time, to know the trust is there—that’s a real bang for our buck.”
Okimoto cites recent examples of the positive impacts delivered from these global partnerships. In the instance of recent devastating wildfires on the West Coast, our international partners pitched in to help tackle the disaster, sharing resources and manpower, even amidst the pandemic. The State of Victoria, Australia, a partner in ongoing discussions around research efforts for fire and flood sensors, sent 45 firefighters, especially poignant because they had already fought their own heartbreaking battles with flames.
Additional examples of collaborations include:
Canines sniffing out COVID-19—Using dogs to detect the presence of COVID-19 in humans was quickly on S&T’s radar after staff attended a conference in the United Arab Emirates in early 2020. A representative at the U.S. Embassy in Abu Dhabi reached out through DHS channels about some research. “This is about smart people learning from one another. Open minds and a willingness to engage,” said Okimoto.
Aviation Security—Among aviation security dangers, few are more pressing than the possibility of detecting explosives on planes. To address a rapidly emerging threat, S&T activated established, trust-based relationships built by S&T’s regional attaché in the UK with counterparts at the U.S. embassy, the UK Home Office, and the UK Department for Transport. A new agreement was put into place within three days. It allowed the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to quickly relay time-sensitive information to the UK partners and to share and test equipment. The agreement let the countries share potentially life-saving information quickly and engage measures to neutralize the risk.
Baggage Pre-screening—Enhancing the security of flights between the United States and foreign countries is as much a priority for U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) as it is for S&T and TSA. The three agencies are jointly engaging the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport of the Republic of Korea to conduct a field demonstration of the S&T-funded Common Viewer Air System, a cloud-based baggage pre-screening software system. This advanced technology not only promises to ensure national security in both nations but also enhances passenger experience through seamless and contactless screening.
The joint initiative, which will run this summer, will enable TSA to assess alternative screening methods at Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport and Incheon International Airport outside Seoul. Delta Air Lines, Inc., will also participate.
Exploitation of Non-operational or Abandoned Drones—DHS operators and their counterparts abroad continuously face attempts by drug traffickers to move illicit drugs using drones. If confiscated and appropriately handled, these small unmanned aerial systems can reveal important electronic or biometric evidence that can be vital to U.S. national security. S&T’s Safe Handling and Collection of Electronics (SHAKE) mobile application provides users with training information and techniques to safely collect non-operational or abandoned drones from the field. S&T recently demonstrated it to international partners and is in conversations to jointly advance development of this technology.
Combatting Child Exploitation—Forcing someone to work or participate in illicit activities seems incomprehensible. Yet, every year in the U.S. and abroad, millions of people are trafficked through force, fraud, or coercion. Especially tragic are the cases of children who are exploited or abused as a result of this crime. This is an international problem, and it requires an international response. S&T has worked with multiple partners, including the UK and Australia, to share digital forensics software that improves the ability of law enforcement agents to isolate faces and objects in seized illicit material. These bilateral exchanges stemmed from a multilateral effort through the 5RD Combating Child Exploitation Network.
Having these relationships in place abroad only strengthens our resolve at home. Without them, said Okimoto, “we run the risk that there’s one more child who doesn’t get to have a childhood, one more acre that burns down to ashes, one more person with COVID-19 who spreads it to others. At the end of the day, that’s what our work means.”
What’s next? “We can’t predict—so we stay positioned to be ready to tap into our network. We can’t afford not to. There’s too much at stake for everyone.”