Illustrations By Stephen Rountree
terrorist attacks of September 11 served as a wake-up call to the nation,
specifically to scientists and engineers. Grief soon gave way to action
as the nation's laboratories began turning their attention to ways to
help repair the damage and protect the country against future attacks.
How can buildings be made safer? How can security in airports--and in
all public spaces--be improved? And how can the citizenry be protected
from invisible but deadly toxins like anthrax?
unusual for scientists to mobilize in times of war. The submarine was
invented during the Revolutionary War. Major advances in radar, atomic
energy, and lasers were made during World War II, and improvements in
space travel, surveillance, and semiconductors came about during the
Cold War. Government grants typically provide the necessary seed money
during times of crisis.
of innovations that will undoubtedly come from the war on terrorism
remains to be seen. But already engineers are taking previous research
and adapting it in innovative ways. One project previously developed
for the auto industry, for instance, may help law enforcement officials
pick out potential terrorists in crowds of people. Improved batteries
originally envisioned for electric vehicles may power military equipment.
And research into improved microphones --based on the design of the
ears of flies--could eventually help soldiers in the field locate war
criminals like Osama Bin Laden.
schools across the nation are responding to the crisis, and many of
the current experiments at university labs reverberate with popular
patriotic sentiments. While the following 25 projects represent only
a fraction of the research being conducted, they do illustrate the intensity
of the efforts. They also show just how diverse the field of engineering
is, as innovations in traditional disciplines such as civil and electrical
engineering are joined by discoveries in newer fields like bioengineering
and acoustics. The research and scientific advances these projects promise
to yield will provide a fitting
magazine has compiled an exclusive list of anti-terrorist innovations
developed in engineering schools that could help put the citizens of
this troubled nation at ease.
FINDING A FACE IN THE CROWD
shots and photos of suspected terrorists are useless when the police
are eyeballing mobs of people at airports or public events. That's
why Tony Woo, a professor of industrial engineering at the University
of Washington is one of many professors nationwide designing systems
that can pluck a face out of a crowd. His software stretches and grafts
a two-dimensional picture onto a three-dimensional head. The software
can adjust and compare the enhanced model to real faces captured on
surveillance cameras in order to find matches. The scheme, adapted
from an industrial application for ensuring that auto headlights from
subcontractors fit into their housings, currently filters faces at
the rate of one per second. That's far more efficient than human monitors,
but Woo wants to improve the speed by tenfold before the software
is ready for deployment.
bombs are a favorite terrorist tool. Fortunately, researchers at Utah
State University have already begun exploring ways to inspect parking
lots full of vehicles. They've come up with a 4-inch tall, three-wheeled
robot dubbed ODIS--for Omni-Directional Inspection System--which a
remote control operator can direct by joystick to inspect the underbelly
of cars. Smart, mobile wheels allow the robot to turn quickly and
travel in any direction, much like a helicopter. Armed with a camera,
the device streams video back to a central headquarters for analysis.
Kevin Moore, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering,
hopes to test three ODIS robots during this month's Olympics. Future
generations could use the robot to monitor other vehicle checkpoints
such as international border crossings.
count in crime fighting, which is why highway patrol officers in North
Carolina become frustrated whenever they stop a suspicious character.
The slow wireless network they use means that downloading a mug shot
from the law enforcement database takes up to 10 minutes before they
know whether they have corralled the right person. But until the network
gets an upgrade, Hamid Krim, a North Carolina State University assistant
professor of electrical engineering, has created a way to shrink the
size of the pictures. Using a new method of compression, optimized
just for faces, he believes he can reduce the transmission time to
seconds. After September 11, he hopes the innovation will help national
law enforcement as well as state patrol and says that it may even
lead to new ways of storing digital photos for easier access.
SHARPENING X-RAY VISION
concealed weapons or spying on hostage takers through the walls of
buildings are just some of the advantages of improved processing technology
for X-ray and radar images. Raghuveer Rao, an electrical engineering
professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, has come up with
a way to more easily discern the edges of shapes by using wavelet
analysis, a mathematical function that parses data into different
frequency components. Objects that you couldn't detect
previously now stand out, says Rao, who believes the technology
has broad applications when detection is necessary. The wavelet image
enhancement technology allows improved detection of easily concealed
objects such as the box cutters that were used to hijack the airplanes
in the terrorist attacks of September 11. The technology is undergoing
laboratory demonstrations and could be commercially available within
the next two years.
detectors at airports provided only limited airport security prior
to September 11; no more than 5 percent of all checked baggage was
typically screened for explosives. That's going to change now due
to the terrorists attacks, and the Federal Aviation Authority is re-examining
techniques to quickly scan more than one billion pieces of luggage
checked each year. Since 1988, William Mayo, a professor of ceramic
and materials engineering at Rutgers University, has been developing
a machine using X-ray defraction that examines the unique atomic structure
of each article in a suitcase. Bombs, like other objects, contain
a unique molecular fingerprint, and Mayo's machine can be updated
to recognize new explosives as they are developed. Now, the FAA has
asked Mayo to build a new version for testing that can scan a cargo-hold
of luggage in less than an hour. Mayo hopes that the new generation
of the 5-foot tall machines will be ready in the next year.
the prospect of anthrax-laced letters scaring many postal and office
workers, Juyang Weng believes that robots ought to open the mail.
The Michigan State University associate computer science and engineering
professor is developing a variety of smart robots that will have the
ability to learn on their own. The key element is attaching the robot's
brain to a body with humanlike appendages, such as arms that can manipulate
objects. The anthropomorphic creation, code named "Dave,"
can then learn from its own actions. Weng expects to have a prototype
ready by March.
STOPPING SPEEDING BULLETS
soldiers have the option of wearing near-impenetrable bulletproof
armor. Trouble is, today's thick ceramic or plastics protection is
so heavy that the troops can barely move. Fortunately, the next generation
of armor will benefit from nanotechnology research at Rensselaer Polytechnic
Institute. Richard W. Siegel, professor of materials science and engineering,
has created tiny nanoparticles much smaller than any natural substances.
Added to a ceramic matrix, the tough but lightweight composite may
one day help rapidly dissipate the energy of bullets, making the projectile
nonlethal even if it manages to penetrate the armor. Siegel hopes
that the material will be available for use by the end of the decade.
how a bomb fragments during an explosion may provide as much evidence
as the fingerprints of criminals can. Otto Gregory, a professor of
chemical engineering at the University of Rhode Island, is using a
high-powered electron microscope to examine fragments of pipe bombs,
one of the most common and destructive terrorist tools. By examining
the metal fragments after the blast, Gregory hopes to help law enforcement
officials determine the size and type of explosive used in the devices.
DECONTAMINATING THE AIR
invention may have important new uses. Yogi Goswami, professor of
mechanical engineering at the University of Florida, designed an indoor
air-cleaning technology in the mid 1990s to help rid buildings with
poor ventilation of excessive mold or mildew. Now, with a few alterations,
Goswami believes that his photocatalytic air-cleaning system, which
uses the interaction between light and chemicals to destroy spores,
could also eliminate airborne anthrax and other dangerous pathogens.
The system could be used in central ventilation systems to decontaminate
buildings and could also be adapted for use in single-family homes.
GOING WHERE HUMANS CANNOT TREAD
aftermath of the World Trade Center's collapse, a team of robots was
sent into the rubble, dispatched to investigate crevices into which
rescue workers could not fit. Robin Murphy, an associate professor
of computer science at the University of South Florida, directed these
search and recovery robots: luggage-size mechanical objects with bulldozer-like
treads. The robots were armed with tiny video cameras, two-way audio
capabilities, and infrared and thermal sonars in order to locate and
assist survivors. The robots could even snake along intravenous tubes
through the small pathways. In the absence of survivors, the robots
collected pictures of the trade center's basement--which was deemed
unsafe for humans--in order to assess structural damage. Murphy believes
the robots could one day be used to rescue hostages and perform SWAT
team missions in lieu of soldiers.
KEEPING WALLS FROM TUMBLING DOWN
economical ways to bolster walls when buildings fall to pieces is
the goal of the University of Missouri-Columbia's National Center
for Explosion Resistant Design. Sam Kiger, the center's director,
believes that non-load-bearing concrete walls common in most contemporary
office buildings could be sprayed with a polyurethane liner like the
kind used in truck beds. In the event of an explosion, the strong,
flexible material could prevent debris from flying about. In walls
with steel studs, found often in home construction, Kiger discovered
that the addition of a single extra screw will nearly double a wall's
load capacity, which increases its resilience in case of explosion.
Army has also asked the center to simulate explosions using computers
in order to help improve the design of its facilities.
SURFING FOR INFORMATION
the unsettling prospect of random terrorist strikes throughout the
country, local fire, police, and rescue crews--and even ordinary citizens--could
benefit from a nationwide terrorist-tracking repository. At the University
of Oklahoma, Le Gruenwald, a professor of computer science, and her
husband, Hermann Gruenwald, a professor of civil engineering, are
helping to create a publicly available Internet database of information
about terrorism, including incidents, alleged perpetrators, targets,
weaponry, and indictments. These lists could assist local investigators
in their search for patterns as they try to identify perpetrators.
about counter-terrorism technologies and practices could help a community
combat a biological attack. The $1.4 million research project is sponsored
by the National Institute of Justice through the Oklahoma City National
Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism. The database will
be housed on the Institute's Web site at www.mipt.org.
TEEING OFF ON MINES
years of warfare, the Afghanistan terrain--like many other strife-torn
nations where terrorists tend to lurk--is chock-full of land mines.
But detecting land mines is a tricky business because sensors often
can't discriminate between harmless and dangerous objects. For instance,
metal detectors might positively identify bits of shrapnel in the
ground while chemical sniffers mistakenly tag it explosive residue.
That's why the Army asked a number of universities to participate
in the Humanitarian Demining Operation and come up with novel solutions.
One of the more promising innovations has been developed at the University
of Kansas, where James Stiles, an assistant professor of electrical
engineering and computer science, has developed a type of radar that
distinguishes human-made symmetrical objects from rocks no matter
how deep the mine is buried. Although a can or shell next to the mine
may still distort the symmetry, Stiles believes his technique can
help. "No one has a sensor that works perfectly in all situations,"
he says. "Mine detection is like golf in that you'll need many
different kinds of clubs."
TURNING UP THE HEAT
of protective garb for firefighters have never really been able to
ensure that the safety gear is truly safe. Current testing environments
can only simulate small scale propane jet fires. But at Worcester
Polytechnic Institute, Jonathan Barnett, professor of fire protection
engineering, has built an 8-foot-by-12-foot testing room that can
endure realistic severe fires such as the jet fuel blaze that engulfed
the World Trade towers. Now with the ability to simulate fires of
varying degrees, appropriate protective suits can be designed. The
U.S. Navy has contributed $250,000 to the project so it can learn
how to better safeguard troops in case of jet fuel fires on aircraft
carriers, for instance.
REDUCING THE RISK OF FIRE
chances of passengers surviving the crash of a large plane aren't
all that great, but Morteza Gharib, a professor of aeronautics and
bioengineering at the California Institute of Technology, thinks the
collateral damage can be reduced. Gharib, who is working with a team
of researchers at the Caltech-affiliated NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory,
hopes that a polymer added to jet fuel will transform it into a jelly-like
substance that would stick together and not disperse into multiple
small fires after a plane crash. The technique may also reduce the
temperature of a fuel fire so it wouldn't get hot enough to melt the
structure of a building, which caused the collapse of the World Trade
bullet or a knife wound doesn't kill a soldier outright, then the
bleeding might. Roughly two-thirds of combat-related deaths are due
to blood loss. And the age-old technique of applying a tourniquet
to stop the gushing causes other problems, such as nerve damage. It
can also lead to the amputation of a limb from lack of blood. So Gary
Wnek, chair of Virginia Commonwealth University's chemical engineering
department, has teamed up with VCU's medical school to design a futuristic
tourniquet. A porous but elastic bag as small as a business card holds
a diaper-like material. Applied to a wound, the bag soaks up blood,
swelling to more than 10 times its original size, and the resulting
pressure stems the bleeding temporarily until a solider reaches a
medical unit. The research, funded by the Army for $300,000 last spring,
has taken on a new urgency with troops in battle abroad.
a toss-up as to whether the average living room or the modern-day
soldier has more electronic equipment. With communications devices,
global positioning satellite trackers, and infrared night-vision goggles
eating up energy, the military requires more juice than ever, and
often the nearest outlet is miles away. The problem has arisen because
the bigger the batteries, the hotter they become. Said Alhallaj, a
professor of chemical engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology,
is adapting research that was originally intended for electric vehicles.
adds special wax inside a lithium ion battery that melts when heated,
consequently cooling the power source. Alhallaj says the battery gets
four times the energy of previous generations and is just half the
CONSTRUCTING GATED COMMUNITIES
difficult to protect fenced-in areas of large facilities like airports
or army bases from intruders. Heavy masonry walls or traditional electronic
fence sensors used by prisons can cost up to $165 a foot, a prohibitively
expensive amount. So at Penn State University's rare acoustics program,
which combines mechanical and electrical engineering and physics,
David Swanson has been developing a so-called "smart" fence.
Tension wires embedded in a fence with a few attached standard $35
geophones (small microphones typically used for seismic measurements)
are connected to a central computer that monitors vibrations. Using
advanced software, the computer can discern whether the amplitudes
of the vibration indicate the arrival of a fox or a fence-climber
and alerts authorities accordingly. Swanson hopes to commercialize
his invention in the next few months.
soldiers in the field long for a taste of home cooking, which is not
always what they get with MREs, shorthand for meals ready to eat.
When the transportable food is being sterilized in packages, the current
methods of using hot water heating or steaming can end up harming
the flavor and texture. However, Juming Tang, associate professor
of biological systems engineering at Washington State University,
has developed an improved system to sterilize MREs by using microwave
and radio frequencies. When these technologies are perfected, they
could allow the military to offer such heat-sensitive, bacteria-prone
rations as scrambled eggs along with current entrees like ham or spaghetti.
Tang has received $580,000 from the Army and Defense Department to
develop the new thermal processing technologies.
biological makeup of a fly's ears may one day help soldiers avoid
surprise sniper attacks. Ronald Miles, chairman of the mechanical
engineering department at SUNY-Binghamton, received a $3 million grant
from the Defense Department to develop tiny microphones called "ormiaphones"
that could be spread across a battlefield or city by American soldiers
to detect the movements of enemy troops. The microphone's design is
based on a fly's ear, which is able to more accurately discern the
direction of sound than a human's ear. An early prototype of the microphone
measures 1 millimeter by 2 millimeter; a less superior unit based
on current technology is at least the size of a breadbox.
body can usually heal from injuries like burns and wounds, but resulting
infections can be even more serious than the traumas themselves when
left untreated. Georgia Tech professors of chemical engineering Jan
Gooch and F. Joseph Schork are developing a "superbandage"
for wounded soldiers caught far from medical treatment. After sustaining
an injury, a soldier could grab a tube and, much like roll-on deodorant,
apply the novel emulsion polymerized gel on the wound to create a
protective layer a thousandth of an inch thick. When the gel dries,
it attaches to the skin so that only water and oxygen can pass through,
not dangerous microorganisms, dirt, or sand. Anti-microbial agents
in the gel fight bacteria, viruses, and fungi and promote healing
for as long as two weeks. Animal testing is underway and the Army
hopes to be able use the gel by next year.
USING PDAS TO WIN THE WAR
generals who once used binoculars and walkie-talkies may soon carry
Palm Pilots instead to direct battlefront operations. That's the hope
of Eugene Santos, an associate professor of computer science and engineering
at the University of Connecticut. He's developing software for an
advanced logistics system to give commanders in the field intelligent
Palm Pilot-like devices to more easily move supplies and equipment
during battle. The management of logistics can make the crucial difference
between winning and losing, if for example, armaments or food doesn't
end up at the correct location. The Air Force is sponsoring Santos's
EJECTING TERRORISTS FROM CYBERSPACE
with protecting public buildings and other facilities, the United
States also has to safeguard cyberspace. A computer attack by terrorists
could wreak havoc with power grids, communications systems, and financial
networks. Raymond Hoare, a professor of electrical engineering at
the University of Pittsburgh, is one of many researchers nationwide
working to design new security systems for local computer networks.
By retooling both hardware and software, Hoare has designed a program
that would take a snapshot of normal network traffic patterns and
monitor them for any deviations, which, for example, occur when a
replicating virus begins to attack hard drives. The controls would
then shut down the activity and alert network administrators. Hoare
hopes to complete the research within 18 months.
RESCUING PHONE LINES
terrorist attack on a city that cripples communications could also
hinder emergency responses. Charles Bostian, a professor of electrical
and computer engineering at Virginia Tech, is head of a research team
developing a portable wireless network for the exclusive use of emergency
personnel. With special equipment placed near a disaster site, rescue
workers could utilize a dedicated wireless network inaccessible to
the public so that lines wouldn't cross, a phenomenon that made it
nearly impossible to use the phone in New York and Washington D.C.
on September 11. The communications pipe would be broadband, allowing
recovery pros to access the Internet and share checklists, inventories
of supplies, and even maps and videos of the situation. The first
version, which can broadcast wireless signals over 2 miles, could
be ready for testing during this month's Winter Olympics. But Bostian
hopes to eventually improve the range to 10 miles.
PLAYING WAR GAMES
the Cold War, American military theorists simulated nuclear war on
computers. But defending against terrorists makes those old war-game
assumptions obsolete. That's why Boris Stilman, a computer science
and engineering professor at the University of Colorado-Denver, has
created new software to help the military prepare for the battles
to come. Stilman's software incorporates a variety of factors
that would be relevant during a war against terrorism, including information
on Army resources and geography. The software uses game theory and
mathematical algorithms to find winning strategies. The program's
other potential applications could help government and businesses
practice decision making during crises like hurricanes or bombings.