San Jose, Calif. As the pieces of its R&D agenda fall into place, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security expects to play a significant role in such areas as sensor networks. But a top R&D manager described his fledgling agency's mission as more "demand-pull" than "tech-push," saying the department will not look to be a driver of technology or markets.
With a budget of nearly $1 billion for the current fiscal year, ending in September, the emerging Science and Technology Directorate inside DHS is still relatively small by government standards, but observers say it is among the fastest-growing channels for federal R&D spending. The private-sector programs that will claim the bulk of that spending will be handled by the Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency (HSARPA), roughly modeled on the Pentagon's successful Darpa program.
In one of his first interviews to date, the director of HSARPA shared his priorities and plans, many of which focus on quickly developing a suite of next-generation sensor networks to help detect and respond to biological, chemical or nuclear attacks.
David Bolka, a former Bell Labs and Lucent Technologies manager and Navy captain, estimated HSARPA will spend about $390 million in its current fiscal year with small and large companies to develop a range of next-generation technologies. Areas of focus will include networked biological and chemical sensors; systems architectures for managing sensor networks; radiation and nuclear-threat detection systems, as well as decontamination systems; "over-the-horizon" sensors for ships; and other programs still in development.
"It's a full plate," said Bolka, who took the helm at HSARPA in early September.
So far Bolka has hired about a dozen program managers and expects to hire another dozen before his group is at full strength, with a head count of about 65, within six months.
Bolka describes DHS as "essentially a large merger" of existing government security bodies such as the Coast Guard, Border Patrol and Secret Service, "and the Science and Technology Directorate within it is like a startup. I think it has the best of both worlds," he said.
Inside the science and technology group, HSARPA is sandwiched between the Office of R&D, which provides public-sector grants for long-term research, and the Systems Engineering and Development group, which helps evaluate and deploy security systems. "By definition, [HSARPA is] a proof-of-concept organization. We take ideas to the level of feasibility," Bolka said.
Ninety percent of HSARPA's current budget is aimed at private-sector programs that will deliver viable technologies within a two-year window, with the remainder pegged for more Darpa-like, long-term research. But that mix is likely to shift over time. "As a new organization with lots of new needs, we decided to focus on near-term requests first, then develop a next generation of systems and then look at the longer-term areas. Right now, the focus is on time-to-market in everything we do," Bolka said.
As such HSARPA is "more requirements-driven than Darpa. We are demand-pull and they are tech-push," he said.
Nevertheless, HSARPA has borrowed heavily from its namesake in its approach to programs, personnel and contracts. The group also has broad flexibility in how it works with industry, having attracted more than 300 proposals for small-business grants, thanks in part to its ability to provide the flexible intellectual-property terms startups seek.
One of HSARPA's top priorities is developing a class of sensor networks to replace and dramatically expand a set of more than 30 relatively expensive standalone biological and chemical sensors deployed at high-risk targets under President George W. Bush's BioWatch program. A late-September call netted some 518 white papers and a handful of full-blown proposals the group is now evaluating, with plans to start contract negotiations this month.
Areas for funding include outdoor biological-threat detectors, indoor chemical and biological warning sensors, and handheld sensors and field analysis labs for first responders. The group will award phase-one grants ranging from $250,000 to $4.5 million to develop product concepts over a nine- to 18-month period. The grants encourage teamwork between companies and university and government labs working in biology, chemistry and electronics.
That program should take two years to reach fruition and will be followed quickly by a next-generation sensor network effort now in the works. Meanwhile, HSARPA is funding multiple studies on systems network architectures in parallel with the call for networked sensors.
"Once we have both of these [generations of networked sensors] in development, we can look further into the future," Bolka said. "I suspect that as we satisfy these near-term requirements a greater portion of our budget will be available to look out to longer-term research, where we can steal a march on the enemy and reduce the current asymmetry" between the multifaceted threat from terrorists groups and the still-emerging safeguards against them.
Just how many sensors of what types are deployed in how many standalone or interconnected networks is yet to be determined, based on the complex interplay of variables under study. "I don't think we are looking a priori at deploying a national sensor network but at [distributed] networks placed where they most need to be," Bolka said.
He expects HSARPA may make its biggest technology impact in driving down the cost and size of sensors while driving up their sophistication. "The government won't provide a viable market for sensors all on its own . . . but we will definitely have an impact on how that technology is packaged and sold," Bolka said.
HSARPA may also play a role in helping "socialize" a broad array of sensor technologies including cameras, infrared and proximity sensors where privacy is a concern. "There could be a public backlash, and we could face the need for outreach and education," he said.
The group hopes to have "a good handle" on the issues of centralized vs. distributed network architectures for sensor nets by September, with both national labs and industry groups engaged in separate studies. "I don't think we need to invent anything new in communications; it's a question of how best to use existing communications technology," Bolka said. RFID tags used at "a couple of large Wal-Mart stores will probably generate more network traffic than all our sensor networks."
A separate emergency preparedness agency is expected to provide grants to help first responders and others buy, and train on using, the new sensor gear. HSARPA is working with other government agencies to set standards that will aid in procuring sensors.
So far, industry reaction to HSARPA has been positive, though some observers said they are still waiting to see the extent to which the agency will take on a more Darpa-like role of rolling out meaty long-term projects that reach out to a broad set of electronics companies.
Given that HSARPA is "a brand-new part of a brand-new agency, I've been pretty impressed with how they are getting their funding mechanisms together despite the challenges," said Kei Koizumi, who tracks government R&D budgets and policies for the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
While the nearly $1 billion 2004 R&D budget at DHS is just a drop in the bucket of the overall $127 billion in annual government R&D spending, the directorate's 56 percent increase in R&D funds over 2003 gives it one of the fastest-growing federal R&D budgets, Koizumi said.
"If it is half as successful as Darpa, it will be great," said Marc S. Berger, an intellectual-property lawyer in Washington, who advises security companies about government work. "I think [HSARPA offers] a fantastic opportunity for startups to get involved with DHS and get R&D funding."
"We are definitely interested in tracking where the R&D dollars will be going from HSARPA. I don't know of any other group who will put as much into homeland security technology," said Joanne E. Hopkins, who tracks government R&D spending for SRI International (Washington).
One challenge for HSARPA is forging links with first responders who will use its technologies. "This is a community that has not really been served by any part of the federal government before," said Koizumi. "It is a new constituency," Bolka acknowledged, "and we have engaged with them" generally through separate planning and preparedness groups within DHS.