Lending a plan

While it’s true that the government was able to come up with that color-coded Homeland Security threat level system all on its own, some academics think the feds could use a hand. In January, Carnegie Mellon University, Penn State, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Pittsburgh formed the Keystone Homeland Security University Research Alliance. Its goal is to develop new technologies to protect the nation’s critical infrastructure. The projects under way at each member university cover a broad spectrum, from meteorology and agriculture to public health and nanotechnology. Here’s a rundown of some of the projects.

Carnegie Mellon University, home of the computer security-focused CERT Coordination Center and Software Engineering Institute, is doing work in the field of robotics. Researchers are developing robotic snakes that, equipped with sensors and cameras, can slither into small spaces such as pipes and air ducts, and could be helpful in the search for survivors trapped in buildings.

At Penn State’s Applied Research Laboratory, researchers are working with the Department of Defense to develop portable, real-time sensors capable of detecting trace levels of chemical and biological agents below lethal concentration. Penn State meteorologists are also working on programs that will help deliver accurate weather forecasts to military personnel from the field, and are analyzing cloud dispersal patterns to help public health officials predict the spread of hazardous gases.

The University of Pennsylvania’s Institute for Research of Cognitive Science is developing technology to decipher foreign language surveillance data quickly and efficiently. Also, researchers in the veterinary school’s pathobiology department are studying the effect of diseases such as the West Nile virus on agriculture.

The University of Pittsburgh has developed software called Realtime Outbreak and Disease Surveillance (RODS). The program monitors reported cases of the flu, respiratory illnesses and other diseases for patterns that might suggest the beginning of an outbreak or terrorist attack. The RODS software was used at the 2001 Winter Olympics and is now in use at hospitals in Utah and Pennsylvania. The university is also offering a certificate program in public health preparedness to help EMTs, police and fire personnel ready themselves for health-crisis situations.

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