Rutgers University is helping the U.S. Department of Homeland Security figure out new ways to protect soft targets like sports stadiums, concert venues, schools, hospitals, and malls from terrorist attacks.

Mathematics professor Fred Roberts, who is the director of the Rutgers Center of Excellence for Engineering Secure Environments from Targeted Attacks, said computer modeling and artificial intelligence is being used to improve security protocols on a number of different fronts.

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Ready for anything

He said while many venues already use metal detectors to check patrons entering a facility, new procedures are being developed to expand the security perimeter, which means “there are people screening you long before you get to the gates. Those may be behavioral screening, there may be sensors, but we’re also talking about protecting somebody from contaminating the food at the stadium.”

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Roberts said this includes incorporating the use of scanners that can detect radiological devices and make use of facial recognition technology, but also “you’re screening for people who might have a vehicle that has something in it that might explode, we’re talking about protecting against drones.”

A living lab

He said the university has become a sort of living lab where different technologies are being tried out in lecture and dining halls, in the school bus fleet and around the football stadium.

“We’ve been in the parking lot on game day, experimenting with robots that will help us observe people in various ways,” said Roberts.

He said sophisticated sensors and robots are being developed that will be able to detect a possible terror threat.

“Human beings are just unable to respond quickly enough to an anomaly, so you actually have to have computers designed to take responsive and corrective actions if they see it," he said.

Previous data analytics work at Rutgers produced an evacuation strategy plan for large sports stadiums that was actually used during a lightning storm at Met Life Stadium in the Meadowlands and everyone was quickly able to get to safety.

Rutgers is one of 10 universities working with DHS on the project.

Roberts estimates Rutgers will receive at least $8 million and perhaps significantly more over the next decade to help develop high-tech solutions to security challenges.

He pointed out the Rutgers School of Engineering will contribute to the new Center of Excellence as part of the Dynamic Digital Twin for Secure and Smart Civic Spaces and Real-time Crowd and Attacker Forecasting for Risk Assessment and Threat Mitigation projects.

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