Sensors to make U.S. ports safer

The University and a private company are now working to better protect American ports.

The USF Center for Ocean Technology (COT) is collaborating with SRI International (SRI) to develop and commercialize port and maritime technologies to boost homeland security.

Jim Patten is the software engineer director at the COT, which is part of the USF College of Marine Science in St. Petersburg. He said the center develops oceanographic sensors and technologies which can map sea walls, bottoms and hulls of ships and harbor basins.

The sensors are then used to create detailed 3-D images that are geo-referenced, or designed so scientists can tell exactly where they were taken in the ocean.

“They (the sensors) are detailed enough so you could see if somebody stuck an object onto the side of a ship hull or the bottom,” Patten said.

It was this sensor equipment that caught the attention of SRI, a not-for-profit company based out of Menlo Park, Calif., that specializes in taking technology developed in academic settings and commercializing it for the private sector.

Carol Steele, manager of administration and organizational development for SRI’s Engineering and Systems Division, said the technology SRI and USF are developing will assist Tampa Bay maritime stakeholders, such as the Coast Guard, Customs, Port of Tampa, Port of Manatee, pilots and local law enforcement to better execute their security tasks.

“By providing technology that enables sharing of information and deploying sensors and sensor systems that provide anomaly alerting to security breaches, (maritime homeland security) is heightened and all entities are better positioned to perform their duty,” she said.

Steele said maritime technology is key to homeland security because the water is “a source of a myriad of activities necessary for commerce and recreation.”

“If properly applied, (the technology) provides continuous, integrated monitoring of a given area enabling security personnel to be engaged in other necessary tasks and responding to alerts as required,” she said.

Ninety-five percent of U.S. cargo arrives through its ports, and security technology creates the ability to observe and monitor areas that would otherwise go without surveillance, Steele said. The closing of any one of the key deepwater commercial ports through a terrorist event has the potential to impact the national economy at a rate of a billion dollars a day, Steele said. That figure represents direct commerce alone, not counting indirect transport, workers and other associated costs.

Patten said the Port of Tampa is a primary example, as it is a major port of entry for many goods and products from Central America and Europe. It’s also a point of export, Patten said, and if someone were able to disrupt that, they would potentially be disrupting the economy of the entire nation.

He said other means of transportation, such as air or ground travel, are easier to inspect and supervise.

“Underwater, there’s ways for people to get in and penetrate and do covert operations,” he said, “so the problems of actually accomplishing homeland security are increased by the harbor. The size and scope plus the operating environment make it very difficult, but it is important.”

Steele said that SRI has a long history of working closely with many leading research universities to create large research initiatives. When SRI was looking to expand beyond California in 2005, she said the technology being developed by the COT fit into the company’s vision.

“During the course of discussions with COT, it was clear that we shared similar values, similar clients and shared desire to move technologies out of the lab and into ‘real-world’ applications,” she said. “In addition, the state of Florida was seeking research institutes that were willing to establish research, development and commercialization activities instate.”

Patten said the COT was a prime candidate for such a collaboration because of its favorable location on the waterfront of Bayboro Harbor in downtown St. Petersburg, amid many other research facilities, including the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, the U.S. Geological Survey Center for Coastal Geology and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“It’s a center of gravity for oceanographic research and institutions, and all of those are within walking distance,” he said. The Tampa Bay area is also home to seven active ports.

SRI officially began operations in St. Petersburg on Jan. 2, including 37 researchers who transitioned from COT, said Steele. She said in 2006, SRI, USF and several local government agency submitted a proposal to the state for funds and that the city of St. Petersburg offered land on its port near the College of Marine Science. SRI agreed that it would invest 20 percent of all commercialization funds generated in Florida into a state marine science fund dedicated to research and committed to growing the organization to 200 researchers over 10 years.

Patten said most of the USF workers who became part of the SRI collaboration did not even have to change offices, just shift their focus. Those researchers continue to work as oceanographers at the College of Marine Science to develop sensor technology, but Patten said “security technology is not their main interest.”

Steele said SRI hopes the collaboration will establish a reputation for the Tampa Bay area as a leader in marine science research and create high-value, tech-centric economic development for the region.

“We continue to see a strong national need to be able to bring together large, diverse research teams to solve important problems – such as port security – in a truly collaborative, non-commercial environment,” said Steele. “Our collaboration with USF is both a recognition of USF’s stature as a growing research university and our desire to expand beyond Silicon Valley – both for collaboration and for new research staff.”