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Sandia expert talks about fighting terrorism

The United States must combat terrorism with people and technology, engineering and engineering systems--and perhaps even take its cues from the field of fire prevention, said Dr. Gerold Yonas, vice president and principal scientist of Sandia National Laboratories.

A systems approach, using information on Al Queda collected since 1990, could have lessened the disaster, he said.

"After the first crash into the World Trade Center, the call could have gone out for all airplanes in the United States to be grounded and the second tower to be evacuated," he said.

Yonas' talk, entitled "Sandia's Thoughts on the War on Terrorism" was a special seminar sponsored by the Engineering Systems Division (ESD) and its affiliated academic programs and research centers on Feb. 11. The seminar was part of a two-day colloquium in which MIT faculty and Sandia representatives Yonas, Dr. Kevin Stamber and Ben Cook (Sc.D. 2001) explored research needed to develop a response to the terrorist threat. They also discussed possible collaboration opportunities between the national laboratories and academics in related areas such as critical infrastructure systems analysis and security.

Infrastructure security "is the type of problem that motivated the formation of the Engineering Systems Division," said Professor Dan Roos, associate dean of engineering systems and ESD director. "Faculty in ESD have worked on different types of critical infrastructure--buildings, transportation, water facilities, energy and information--as well as different analysis approaches. ESD and its affiliated research centers provide an intellectual home for faculty and students to collaborate on the critical global priority of infrastructure security in a holistic manner."

Yonas cited a report prepared by the Congressional Research Service dated Sept. 10, 2001, which listed terrorists groups with a high activity level. Al Qaeda was number one. Evidence that Al Qaeda wanted to strike within the United States should not have been a surprise at that point. "There had been statements found in 1990 and read in 1995 that described their plans to blow up 'the towers,' tall buildings and other areas," he said.

Yonas summed up the challenges. "We're not used to this type of combat on our own soil. There are over 40 agencies that say they're in charge of small pieces of the problem. An interdisciplinary and multiagency approach is needed to deal effectively with this threat and preserve what we value in our society without resorting to draconian methods."

He showed a film about how fire prevention evolved from a reactive mode of localized solutions to a proactive national network of interdisciplinary solutions. Internal infrastructures such as roadways were modified and widened to accommodate fire-fighting trucks. Dependence on local bucket brigades evolved to developing elite corps of specially trained forces such as fire jumpers. Sensor technologies were invented to detect fire, heat and smoke. And the public changed too, from initially feeling intruded upon by organized efforts to address fire prevention, to gradually seeing it as part of everyday life.

"The US public is no longer terrorized by the threat of fire and the same approach can be used to fight terrorism," said Yonas. "Eventually the changes will become part of everyday life and will go largely unnoticed until they are needed."

Although there are many groups dedicated to addressing terrorism, the national response is mostly uncoordinated, tending to consist of point solutions that do not consider interdependencies, Yonas said

Small networks of widely deployed, interconnected and competent devices, people and capabilities could be created. This "system of systems" would eventually become self-organizing and form a robust, self-adaptive and intelligent network, he said.

Cities, for example, can be hardened (and to some degree already are) with sensors and robots that could provide what Yonas called "exquisite awareness." Borders and airports could be armed with logistical components and sensors that track people and goods.

Yonas' presentation is available online through MIT World .

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 6, 2002.

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