Spreading a new safety net

Developed by Oak Ridge National Laboratories
(ORNL), SensorNet is an early detection system based on the existing
network of some 30,000 cell phone towers across the United States. It
consists of attaching state-of-the-art sensor packages that identify
chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or explosive threats in
real-time, to the towers.

Linked by computers to a central command
unit, the detectors could send out a statewide alarm to law enforcement
agencies and also compute the spread of a weapons plume in the event of
an attack. While it won’t halt the contaminant’s progress, the warning,
which would contain information about the exact type of agent, the
speed and direction of its advance and appropriate civilian response
strategies, could help speed advance evacuation and immediate medical

The need for a reliable and robust early
warning system is vital—such warnings could save thousands of lives. At
present, the only system in place is the “citizen” detection system:
people suddenly falling sick. Hardly an acceptable scenario.

A new line of defense

“The issue that exists today is that people
are the first line of detection in the event of an attack,” said Reid
Gough, dean of the School of Technology, Davenport University,
headquartered in Grand Rapids, Mich. “We may not know we’re being
attacked until people start exhibiting the effects of the agent that is
being used. It is critical that systems are put in place to identify
the threat before it reaches the people.”

Sensors have already been deployed in
Nashville, Knoxville and Oak Ridge, Tennessee, with additional sensors
planned for Memphis, Chattanooga and Sullivan County in Upper East
Tennessee. A communications center at ORNL is currently operational and
shows real-time data from test beds in Washington DC, New York and
Tennessee. Partners in the effort include the Tennessee Office of
Homeland Security, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
and commercial sensor developers. By establishing Tennessee as a test
bed for the nation, the researchers plan to identify requirements
necessary to operate the network reliably on a national scale.

“SensorNet appears to be on the right track,”
said Gough. “The fact that they are leveraging existing assets (i.e.
cell towers and rooftops) makes the task of covering large land masses
somewhat more feasible.”

He continued: “One of the challenges of
implementing such a system is the sheer size of the areas that need to
be protected. Not only do you have the hardware that needs to be
installed, but the technology infrastructure has to be robust and
stable enough to connect and communicate with a variety of sources very

The system aims to sense an airborne hazard,
convey the information to a command center and perform a predictive
plume model within a five minute window. In a test situation two years
ago, the network successfully detected a simultaneous discharge of
sarin gas in three cities and dispatched the necessary data within five
minutes to a mock command center at the Tennessee Office of Homeland
Security in Nashville. A fully active node placed at the Watt Road
Station, the second busiest truck weigh and inspection station in the
United States (with traffic of around 28,000 trucks per day) is used
for monitoring the presence of radiological and nuclear material in the

The team is also working on fusing the
information from multiple sources so that the system can proactively
respond to changing threat levels and alerts. For instance, an alert
from a law enforcement network to intercept particular trucks could be
conveyed to weigh stations or other choke points using the network’s
common data highway. Currently the system uses meteorological, video,
radiological, and a limited number of commercially available chemical
sensors with plans to incorporate biological ones at a later date.

However, Mark Allen Miller, a terrorism
security consultant at Executive Protection Systems, a private security
consulting firm in Winchester, Va., is skeptical of the system’s

“If the cell towers are more than a couple of
hundred meters apart then a chemical cloud could pass in between and
not be detected,” he pointed out. “Of course this is based on the
amount released, the type of agent used and weather conditions.
Radiological detectors would have the same problems based on the
strength of the radiological source and the amount of shielding used.
If the sensor was placed high up on a tower it very well could not pick
up a radiological source on the ground, and that’s most likely where
the source would originate.”

Detecting multiple hazards

In addition to sensors aimed at WMD-type
airborne hazards and truck cargo monitoring, the researchers also plan
to include sensors for environmental (health), security, process and
other types of monitoring. By using a plug-and-play interface for the
sensors and an open-ended development policy, the researchers aim to
push the envelope for technology innovation and encourage the easy and
effective installation of additional sensors.

“One can buy many telephones that are
produced by different companies,” said Jim Kulesz, an official at ORNL.
“Yet they all work instantaneously, everywhere in the country, just by
attaching them to an active telephone line. We want to be able to plug
sensors into a SensorNet-like system and have everything work just as
effortlessly. Thus, as sensors are certified to meet the sensor
performance standards of the US Department of Homeland Security, they
will be able to be readily incorporated into system.”

Kulesz hopes to see the system deployed
operationally across major areas of Tennessee within two to three
years. “It is not likely that sufficient funding will be available,
however, within this timeframe to completely accomplish this.” HST

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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