Advancing Explosives Detection on Mass Transit

Explosives detection technology designed for surface transportation is being tested and is two years from proof of concept, according to DHS.
Image: Pixabay

Cutting edge explosives detection technologies are being developed for mass transit systems where checkpoints are impractical.

To give transportation authorities the most advanced security tools, they must be designed especially for the constraints of mass transit. The Surface Transportation Explosive Threat Detection Program mission is to do just that — provide mass transit operators with integrated, layered solutions for explosives detection that mitigates public safety threats.

A layered solution in one where omnipresent video sensors are placed throughout the transportation system — from curb to platform — which performs leave-behind object mitigation and standoff detection. But every solution has got to embed seamlessly in the natural flow of mass transit systems, as well as for large crowd event scenarios.

Mass transit systems are open, with no fixed checkpoints and a passenger throughput four to six times the most challenging airport environment, said Don Roberts, program manager for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Science & Technology (S&T) Directorate Surface Transportation Program in a TechTalk Facebook live broadcast.

“No one is going to show up two hours early to ride a subway,” he said.

Safety, Privacy & Practicality

For explosives detection to be relevant to mass transit, safety and privacy are critical to design, Roberts said. They also must be cost-effective and work in systems that may be more than 100 years old, like Boston’s subway.

He said DHS’s Surface Transportation Explosive Threat Detection Program began by embedding teams in mass transit systems. They are also working with the Transportation Security Administration to help understand the requirements and capability gaps of the transit sector, and to facilitate test beds for the explosives detection technologies being developed.

S&T is working on explosive threat detection systems designs that offer emissions hundreds of times lower than cellphones: “Orders of magnitude less emissions than public radio waves,” Roberts said.

On the privacy front, they are working with recent developments in automated target recognition – “so the computer is going to be looking, not some individual looking at an individual,” said Roberts, adding, that would be too slow.

Right now, Roberts and his teams are working with local agencies to test a forensic video exploitation and analysis tool (Fovea) and highly specialized K9s that can detect explosives in moving targets. They are also exploring recent breakthroughs in antennae design and signal processing that could “work at the speed of the traveling public,” he said.

Rapid Video Analysis Technology to Improve Explosives Detection

Fovea is being tested in the Washington D.C. subway, by the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority and for special events in the capital. It’s also being tested in partnership with Amtrak, and, along with standoff detection, in an old Mass Bay Transportation Authority station somewhere in the Boston area.

There are near-, mid- and long-term goals for explosives detection, but Fovea will be ready to meet near-term objectives because it is going through developmental testing and evaluation. Fovea is going to make the job of the mass transit video analyst much more efficient and effective:

What used to take hours and days takes minutes and hours to be able to assess potential leave behind mitigation, tracking people through the system that may be of interest, being able to capture the surrounding circumstances behind a potential leave behind bag,” said Roberts.

Fovea will give mass transit operations that technology. “It’s been very much a success story from the end-user standpoint,” said Roberts, noting the program is on track to complete proof of concept in less than two years.

The next step is to automate Fovea:

Explosives Detection K9s

As a longer-term goal, S&T is focused on looking to see inside bags and objects for potential threat items. The challenge is documenting requirements for the technology in mass transit scenarios, and explaining to technology companies what is needed.

However, Roberts is also directing the surface transportation K9 program. He described explosives detection K9s as the most versatile, mobile, flexible detection in the arsenal.

About 200 “person search types K9s” can actually assess vapor coming off of a moving individual or object. So they can work in crowded environments because they are trained to assess moving targets.

S&T is testing the specialized K9s efficacy, strengths and weaknesses for surface transportation and large crowd scenarios in partnership with local law enforcement agencies. A series of testing — parametric assessments — with the dogs will establish an operations and maintenance framework for agencies. The goal is for them to understand what they can rely on the specialized K9s for, as well as what it takes to care for them.

Watch the broadcast on Facebook.

Learn more about securing surface transportation on the DHS website.

About the author

Andrea Fox

Andrea Fox

Andrea Fox is Editor of and Senior Editor at Lexipol. She is based in Massachusetts.