Panelists: Technology Offers Opportunity to Fight Terrorism

October 28, 2001

by Steven Wright

Information will be the most important weapon in the war against terrorism, five Duke University professors said Thursday night (Oct. 25).

"This is the largest opportunity for engineers in a generation to contribute to the public good," said David Brady, director of the Fitzpatrick Center for Photonics and Communication Systems and professor of electrical engineering.

The Pratt School of Engineering forum, the seventh in a series sponsored by the university to address issues confronting the world after the events of Sept. 11, examined current technologies and their abilities to track terrorists and mitigate the impact of future attacks.

In addition to Brady, the panel featured Kristina Johnson, dean of the Pratt School; Leslie Collins, assistant professor of electrical engineering; Amin Vahdat, assistant professor of computer science; and Dr. Allan Shang, an assistant clinical professor in the Department of Anesthesiology.

The opportunity for engineering's contribution will most likely lie in refining existing technology to meet the needs brought about by threats of terrorism, panelists said. They said that by improving technological devices that already exist, such as bomb detecting sensors, law enforcement officials will be better able to prevent future attacks. Collins said that many sensors that are currently under development cannot clearly determine when a real threat arises, and too often, give off false alarms.

"We simply need better sensors," she said. "We need better signal processing."

Panelists also examined safeguards that could be implemented to protect the public. To prevent biological attacks via the mail, Shang suggested that photonic devices could be added to letter sorters to calculate the sizes of particles inside envelopes and compare the results to sizes of known biological hazards such as smallpox or anthrax. Such devices would have to measure particles as small as 1 to 5 microns.

"If you had a detector close to the mail processors, it could set off an alarm before the mail was actually opened [and could do harm]," he said.

But other forms of prevention also must be considered, Shang cautioned. He said experts must develop ways of preventing terrorist from simpler attacks such as opening a vile of small pox in an international airport.

"It takes just one smallpox particle to infect someone, who could infect the entire world," he said.

In addition to providing warning about future attacks, sensors also could be employed to identify terrorists. Instruments such as face recognition devices already exist, but, like other sensors, have very limited capabilities and need further development, said Johnson, who returned Thursday morning from a meeting of the National Science Foundation where the attacks were the focus of discussion.

Cost also plays a major role in determining the use and development of sensors, Brady said. High costs have traditionally prevented the government from taking full advantage of current sensor technology.

"We can't afford at current cost levels to put sensors everywhere we would like," he said.

Thursday night's forum previewed this weekend's conference of academic and industrial leaders to discuss what the Pratt School of Engineering and the engineering field can do to respond to the events of Sept. 11.