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The generic approach to winning the Asymmetric War

16 November, 2007
In our second report from the British Technion Society seminar, we look at the other challenges being taken up by the Technion Institute in the ever changing battle against international terrorism.
"One of the key challenges of any anti-terrorism technology is that it can take years to develop a successful solution but a terrorist can counter the measures in a matter of days," explained Prof Abraham Marmur, Head of Technion's Centre for Security Science and Technology. "In many ways we are fighting an Asymmetric War."

To illustrate his point he cited the experiences of the Israeli security authorities several years ago that were trying to combat the impact of suicide bombers at bus stops using metal shards to produce shrapnel to maximise the damage of their explosions.

The Israelis spent years developing metal detection systems to counter the threat. Once the systems had been implemented, the terrorists changed tactics to use glass beads and ceramics to spread the carnage. The outcome was far worse because it meant that it was harder for the surgeons treating the bomb victims to locate the glass and ceramic objects. Ironically, metals were much easier to detect.

At a recent British Technion Society seminar, Prof Marmur's highlight of the complexity of the anti-terrorism struggle was timely. He was explaining to an audience that featured several UK police authorities including the Metropolitan Police and the MoD, how Technion in Haifa, Israel's world-class Institute of Technology, approaches the way it researches anti-terrorism technologies.

At the same time, and only a hand-made mortar's range away in London, Gordon Brown, the UK's Prime Minister, was detailing how security will be stepped up at railway stations, airports and ports as part of Government attempts to tackle terrorism.

The measures include new security barriers, vehicle exclusion zones and blast resistant buildings. Rail travellers at large stations will also face having their bags screened. Interestingly most of those options are relatively low-tech initiatives.

In the long term, Prof Marmur believes that to overcome the high-tech v low-tech challenge facing anti-terrorism technologists, Technion has to adapt a generic approach to its research and then apply specific solutions using the underlying technology it has developed. He also sees interdisciplinary cooperation as a vital ingredient.

The Technion scientists all underlined the sheer scale of the high-tech v low-tech challenge in their respective areas of expertise.

Prof Ehud Keinan of the Schulich Faculty of Chemistry outlined 'The Growing
Threat of Terror by Peroxide-based Explosives'.

This was a presentation that had several security experts shifting uncomfortably in their seats. The cause was the gradual realisation how easy, cheap and low tech it actually was to bring down a Boeing 747.

Prof Keinan is known as Mr TATP and his expertise focuses on detecting peroxide-based explosives such as Triacetone-triperoxide or TATP. Prof Keinan pointed out why TATP was so popular with terrorists.

The key reasons are:

TATP is cheap to make â€" for about $17 you can bring down a 747.

TATP looks like crystalline sugar.

TATP is classed as a high explosive and is far more destructive than TNT.

TATP can be plasticised to make it more stable and more deadly than its crystalline form â€" plastic TATP can be moulded to look like toys or other everyday objects.

TATP is also the detonator and the main charge â€" a cigarette is all that is needed to detonate the explosive.

And worse of all TATP is transparent to traditional explosive detectors because its density is much lower than for conventional explosives. X-ray diffraction systems cannot easily detect TATP and neither can mass spectrometry.

Luckily the Technion researchers have used their expertise to help develop the Acro-PET Peroxide Explosives Tester, which only needs 5 to 10 micrograms of TATP to identify the explosive.

The PET is a disposable, pen-sized device that has been designed for non-professional use. The detector has a high sensitivity for TATP, is quick to respond, simple to operate and safe to use.

The only substance to have given a false positive with the PET so far is a certain brand of washing powder. However, this can be easily qualified because TATP does not dissolve in water whereas the washing powder obviously does.

While Mr TATP and his team are striving to prevent a terrorist attack there is little doubt that the terrorist will continue to make strikes so other Technion researchers are looking at what can be done after a terrorist incident to mitigate its effects.

With this in mind Dr Alon Wolf, Head of Biorobotics and Biomechanics at Technion focused his presentation on 'Snake-like Robots and Other Flexible Devices for Search and Rescue Applications'.

Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) workers typically only have 48 hours to find trapped survivors in a collapsed structure, otherwise the likelihood of finding victims still alive in nearly zero. A catastrophic terrorist attack such as 9/11 requires rapid and efficient search and rescue of survivors.

But what is the best way of doing this dangerous task? Dr Wolf's research team is taking its cue from nature. He has been studying various animals â€" from snakes to elephants (their trunks to be precise). "We like to learn from the living," he explained. "A snake's sidewinder locomotion is highly effective. At all times the snake only has three points of contact with the ground. We have tried to replicate this in our designs."

Hyper-redundant 'snake' robots have many more degrees of freedom than conventional robots and rescue machinery. They also have the added benefit of having a small cross-sectional area. These many degrees of freedom enable snake robots to thread through tightly packed volumes reaching locations otherwise inaccessible to conventional robots and people, while at the same time, not disturbing the surrounding areas. This is critical in search and rescue operations where large pieces of debris become fragile make-shift support structures. Snake robots are highly versatile and can cope with most challenges.

For example Dr Wolf suggested that a snake robot equipped with a suitable sensor would be ideal for searching for envelopes containing anthrax or other biohazards. The robots can easily enter buildings and access any suspect packages.

Having dealt with the immediate aftermath of a terrorist event there is then the onerous prospect of collecting evidence.

This was the focus of Prof Ehud Rivlin , a member of Technion's Computer Science Department who presented his work on 'Video Event Understanding and Indexing for Monitoring and Surveillance'.

Prof Rivlin pointed out that machine based event analysis is essential to speeding up terrorism detection and prosecution rates. He used London's 7/7 bombings to illustrate the size of the challenge being faced by security personnel.

"During the investigation of the 7/7 bombers activities prior to the event the security authorities had to view 28,000 hours of CCTV footage taken by 6000 cameras," explained Prof Rivlin.

This was a monumental task that inevitably delayed the investigation.

Even though surveillance video technology is commonly regarded as the most efficient security tool, its weakness is that it currently has to rely on human operators to analyse the data. Human operator detection rates using CCTV footage are very low when under pressure. The rates are as low as two percent if one operator is monitoring five or more screens.

Some of Prof Rivlin's work benefits from his Technion colleague, Prof Kimmel's 3D Face Recognition studies that have produced algorithms for fast geodesic detection curves. The algorithms can help to determine motion and shape features in video footage. By applying motion and shape analysis as part of 3D human tracking systems it is possible to differentiate target suspects or suspicious activities from complex backgrounds.

By combining a number of these technologies, it seems that one of the Holy Grails for the security industry is slowly appearing on the radar or should that be the CTV monitor.

When asked whether it would be possible to pick out suspicious behaviour in a crowd, Prof Rivlin said: "Resolution is the key but with sensor fusion - that is combining voice activation, infra-red sensors and such like with our technology â€" we should be able to do it."

That sounds like a specific solution using generic research to us.
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