Published July 12, 2005
LONDON – Within hours of the London bombings, a renewed call went up for the United States to use its considerable technological heft to prevent similar attacks on the nation's transit system.
Public transit's chief lobbyist said its members need $6 billion to upgrade security, and Congress is expected to increase funding in the coming weeks. Sensing opportunity, some technology companies aggressively advertised their potential to create gadgets to detect bombs and chemical and biological weapons.
But ideas such as smoke-detectorlike devices sounding an alarm when a bomb-porting terrorist enters a train station are years and billions of dollars from fruition -- if ever. The best current defenses for the country's subways, buses and trains, security experts say, remain decidedly low tech: human vigilance and bomb-sniffing dogs.
The very nature of mass transportation makes it impossible to install metal detectors and take the other security measures that aim to protect the flying public.
"You can not just take the applications that are used in airport and plunk them into the transit system," said Gregory Hull (search), director of safety and security programs for the American Public Transportation Association. "But some could be modified."
The industry has spent $2 billion since Sept. 11, 2001, training its security personnel to be on the lookout for abandoned packages and suspicious passengers, Hull said.
Nonetheless, the system needs about $5 billion in radio communications improvements, and the industry is also keen to deploy more cameras to surveil tunnels and stations, he said.
Another promising technology under development is software that would direct cameras to immediately flag suspicious scenes at stations such as abandoned packages or passengers dressed for winter during summer.
Sniffing the air for hints of bombs, though, remains an elusive holy grail.
"Detecting explosives is not an easy thing," said David Danley, a retired Army colonel and head of defense programs at Combimatrix Corp (search)., a small biotechnology company near Seattle.
Combimatrix has $10 million worth of contracts to develop a handheld device that soldiers can use to detect pathogens on the battlefield. Danley said the device, which is fueled by so-called "gene chips," could be adapted to detect chemicals as well and shrunk to the size of smoke detector.
The detector would contain key genetic signatures of dozens of deadly bugs and chemicals on a chip. If an attack occurred, DNA from the weapon would bind to the chip, which would trigger an alarm.
Danley conceded that in developing a detector, determining exactly which of the myriad deadly bomb making agents to sniff for is the "$64 million question."
"We won't come up with a 100 percent solution," he said.
Still, since last year's Madrid bombings, the Department of Homeland Security (search) has increased the funds available for transit security, prompting wide industry interest.
"I can envision technologies in the future that will give us the ability to detect explosives without going through the kind of portals you do in the airport," Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff (search) said Sunday on NBC's "Meet The Press."
Among the slew of companies offering improvements to transportation security is Irvine, Calif.-based HiEnergy Technologies Inc., which makes detectors that can determine in 15 seconds to three minutes whether an object contains explosives and, if so, which ones. The suitcase-sized detectors, which cost $300,000 apiece, bathe an object in neutrons and measure the gamma rays emitted in response.
Among the first customers is the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, known as SEPTA, which has ordered two devices.
But the technology is no panacea, because it is useful in scanning unattended packages rather than the belongings someone is carrying.
HiEnergy is also working on a system that can check for explosives in cars and that could improve security at the entrances to military facilities and transportation centers, said Bogdan Maglich, HiEnergy's founder and CEO.
Because of the technological hurdles to detecting bombs, companies such as BBN Technologies of Cambridge, Mass. are instead exploring ways that sensors and other surveillance gear could be deployed for forensic purposes after an attack.
BBN believes that while technology might help police collar a terrorist mastermind and thus prevent subsequent attacks, asking tech to prevent bombings is an enormously tall order.
"It's hard to admit that you're not going to stop the explosion," said Stephen Milligan, BBN's chief technologist. "But if you could stop them (bombs) from being made, you'd have a much bigger impact."