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ALERT renewed as homeland security Center of Excellence

The Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate has announced the renewal of Northeastern’s Awareness and Localization of Explosives Related Threats Center as a DHS Center of Excellence. This distinction, given to just 12 research centers in the nation, is accompanied by a five-year funding commitment, including $2.5 million in the first year.

Headquartered at Northeastern, ALERT is a major consortium of university and industry partners across the country and in Israel. The University of Rhode Island will continue as Northeastern’s principal partner at the center.

“Explosives detection remains a critical element in the pursuit of a more secure homeland,” said Stephen W. Director, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs. “ALERT’s renewal as a DHS Center of Excellence underscores Northeastern’s longstanding commitment to use-inspired research in the area of security that addresses one of the most pressing challenges facing our country today.”

The ALERT research team develops new technologies and approaches that have been tested at airports in Boston and Cleveland. For example, video systems that detect anomalous behavior have been used in live demonstrations with real passengers.

The ALERT research team develops new technologies and approaches that have been tested at airports in Boston and Cleveland. For example, video systems that detect anomalous behavior have been used in live demonstrations with real passengers.

ALERT’s focus areas include failsafe screening of luggage and cargo; eliminating the availability of illegal explosives materials; and detecting long distance threats as well as the presence of very minute samples of explosives residue on clothing. While all of these remain distant goals, they define the research and testing programs on which ALERT will concentrate.

The renewal builds upon Northeastern’s strong relationship with DHS and commitment to security-related research initiatives. This includes
President Joseph E. Aoun’s support of restoring homeland security research funding and his work as a member of an academic advisory council for the Department of Homeland Security.

“We ask ourselves, what are the grand challenges that we need to address if we’re going to have a major impact in the field,” said founding director Michael Silevitch, the Robert D. Black Professor in Northeastern’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “I am proud that our team will continue to contribute to the Department’s critically important mission of homeland security.”

The ALERT team comprises co-director Jimmie Oxley of the University of Rhode Island as well as research leaders Carey Rappaport, ALERT’s associate director and a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Northeastern; David Castañón of Boston University; and Stephen Beaudoin of Purdue University. The team merges expertise in advanced sensor design; standoff weak-target detection; signal processing; sensor integration; explosives characterization; improvised explosive device detonator signatures; and identification of signatures of the presence of very small traces of explosives on clothing and other suspicious objects.

With the grand challenges defined, the research team develops new technologies and approaches for addressing them. In many cases, these methods are then directly tested in real-world situations at locations such as the Cleveland Hopkins International Airport and Boston Logan International Airport. For example, video systems that detect anomalous behavior—such as a person moving against the flow of traffic and illegally entering a secure area of the airport terminal—have been used in live demonstrations with real passengers.

If the algorithms are reliable they will be adapted as tools for the Transportation Security Administration operators. ALERT currently has systems being readied for commercial rollout in the areas of luggage screening and anomaly detection.