DHS adds foraging to tech arsenal

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If the Department of Homeland Security doesn't have a particular technology needed to solve a problem, it has the option of going into "McGyver" mode, adapting what it can find to make a suitable solution instead of turning to the formal federal procurement process.

The agency scours tech ideas and adaptable gear from other agencies, research groups or private industry, or a combination of all those sources. Such "technology foraging," became a cornerstone of the DHS Science and Technology Directorate's mission in 2011. In an S&T Snapshot post on its website, Stephen Hancock, a former Navy aerospace engineering duty officer who leads the S&T tech foraging initiative, wrote that research managers canvas journals, patents, labs and forums across the Internet looking for technologies that could be "readily adaptable" to the agency's mission.

"When people think 'innovator,' they think 'Thomas Edison'—a lab genius who created science breakthroughs," Hancock wrote. "But today we need innovators who can recognize a breakthrough, adapt it, package it, and then field it. It is the reinventing of invention itself. After all, we're not the only ones facing the same kind of challenges."

DHS finds adaptable technologies in a wide variety of places. One example, according to the snapshot document, involved a collaboration between the Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The Coast Guard needed a way to track small watercraft that might be used to transport illegal contraband. S&T developed software with NOAA that allows the Coast Guard to take its own radar images of a bay, then tap into NOAA’s coastal radar—normally used to monitor ocean currents and wave action--to detect stealthy small vessels that might be hauling contraband.

The article also mentions a collaboration with NASA on disaster-victim detection technology, in which S&T modified a NASA-developed human heartbeat detection monitor for use in search-and-rescue operations.

"These successful examples of tech foraging show how multiple investments from federal agencies can be leveraged, especially when program managers actively look for opportunities to re-purpose research and development, reducing costs and creating new homeland security solutions," said Hancock, quoted in the DHS document.

Although DHS spokeswoman Nicole Stickel declined to comment on the specifics of how the program might get technology to DHS users more quickly or cost-effectively, she did say that the program "leverages existing research to save time and money while jumpstarting a technology's application for homeland security."

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a staff writer at FCW.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.

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Reader comments

Wed, Aug 7, 2013

Liars. For the TWIC program and Trusted Traveler, they could have piggybacked off lessons learned for CAC and FIPS201 programs, and even made the data sets interoperable. (Trusted Traveler could have started with around 2 million pre-cleared CAC holders.) But, no, they had to do it Their Way.

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