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DHS Modeling Software Helped a Stranded Airplane, Deepwater Horizon Spill

The Maritime Security Center uses data modeling, radars and sensors to support homeland security missions.

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Many people might be familiar with the 2016 film “Sully” that chronicled the dramatic 2009 emergency landing of US Airways Flight 1549, or the high-profile Deepwater Horizon oil rig that exploded in the Gulf of Mexico.

But most people don’t know that the modeling activity from a center of excellence commissioned by the Department of Homeland Security’s Science & Technology Directorate played large parts in the emergency responses of those incidents.

The Maritime Security Center at the Stevens Institute of Technology, then known as the Center for Secure and Resilient Maritime Commerce, models currents and waves for maritime safety, using historical data from the past 12 to 15 years to make predictions on currents 48 hours in advance. It also develops sensor technologies to facilitate legal maritime traffic, port maps to enhance efficiency, and even microwave sensors to detect destructive stowaway insects infiltrating imported cargo.

In the emergency landing incident, the team used current and wave modeling to advise the pilots where to land safely on the Hudson River.

“We have relationships with all the locals, and they contacted us because they knew we do a lot of modeling,” the center’s Director Hady Salloum told GovernmentCIO Media & Research in describing the center’s assistance landing the plane. “We recommended where to put the fire boat — and that worked — and push the fire boat against the plane. And once the rescue was finished, we were able to tell them which area is going to have the lowest current over the next 48 hours to do the investigation, so they took the plane there and did some additional investigations. Those became very useful pieces of information.”

A year later, when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and dumped 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the center stepped in again to predict where the oil spills would go based on current movement, which helped the Coast Guard and Defense Department plan their response and the subsequent cleanup.

“We used our partnership with the University of Miami to look at how things were changing day to day,” Salloum said.

During a summer trip for interns several years ago, Salloum remembers how the center took on an opportunity to develop sensors for Customs and Border Protection to detect insects in imported bags of rice.

“The guy in charge from CBP was showing everybody around, and they showed how they look at agricultural products coming in through the port,” he explained. “They take a bag of rice, pour it on a stainless steel counter and sift through to see if there’s any insects.”

The team worked with CBP on a proof of concept in the form of a microwave sensor that detected motion in rice bags.

That opportunity led to another: catching foreign wood-boring insects before they killed American trees. The center developed a sensor to find the insects in ports before they even got to trees because once they infest a tree, it’s practically too late. If wood-boring insects kill a tree, local authorities will cut down all trees within a 50-foot radius of it to prevent the insects from spreading, Salloum noted. The developed sensor can detect insects inside trees, which can save uninfected trees from the ax.

“If we can stop the insects at the port, that’s great. But if they do get into the country, instead of chopping 50 feet’s worth of trees, you can only chop the trees affected,” Salloum said.

The center is currently working on a suite of low-cost underwater sensors for the Coast Guard to monitor water vessel activity along U.S. coasts.

“Radars and sensors are very expensive, but we picked lower-cost sensors and cameras and acoustics and integrated them together,” Salloum said. “We picked radars that are used on vessels to avoid collision, so it’s a shorter area, and that’s not good enough, so we integrate with a camera and we can accomplish very good results for a small area.”

The center just finished another radar project for the Coast Guard, which involved modifying vessel traffic service (VTS) radars to detect smaller vessels to improve search-and-rescue operations.

“The coast guard has VTS radars on harbors mostly for safety and security,” Salloum said. “These radars were meant to be for large ships. Anything too small gets ignored. When it’s time to create these radars, why not create them to detect small vessels to monitor safety? So we set the requirements closely working with the Coast Guard and DHS and sent out the RFI to all the potential vendors selling and making these systems. We analyzed the responses, put them in a report and visited multiple VTS sensors. The final document allows them to be a lot smarter when they go out to buy VTS radars. We hope in the future they will ask for help when buying these radars.”

The MSC is also working with Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the Critical Infrastructure Resilience Institute (another DHS S&T center of excellence) to automate bridge openings securely.

“Eventually we want to go to an automated system where someone gets there and they’re able to do it or have an app to request permission to open the bridge and close it,” Salloum said. “You don’t want to close it when a ship is under it. The other issue is security. You don’t want someone to hack into it and open it when you don’t want it to. We’re looking at all the frameworks available from NIST, CISA, everyone who’s developed cybersecurity procedures and see which ones apply.”

Like other DHS S&T-commissioned centers of excellence, the MSC also focuses on educating and training the next generation of the workforce.

“We have a summer program we’ve been running for some years. We pick the top students, pick projects relevant to DHS missions, and typically have a champion from the Coast Guard or CBP to work with them,” he said. “We’ve brought in over 200 students over the last two years and funded students to assistantships, and they’ve all gotten jobs relating to the DHS enterprise. We try to balance the students between gender and minorities. We’re able to pick the best talent and those become our future workforce.”

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