A potential new biological threat detection solution that the Department of Homeland Security recently began to evaluate is expected to lead to a nationwide infrastructure that runs from detection, analysis and response at a far faster pace than currently, according to a senior department official.
The Biological Detection for the 21st Century (BD21) system of systems will lead to a “national infrastructure for bio-detection and bio-response that doesn’t currently exist,” James McDonnell, assistant secretary for the Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction (CWMD) Office, told Defense Daily.
Earlier this month, McDonnell’s office issued a Request for Information seeking industry comments on available technologies for BD21, which will largely replace the existing BioWatch program that has been around since 2003 in response to a number of anthrax attacks carried out through the mail.
“The problem we have with BioWatch is we don’t really have a detection system for bio-defense,” McDonnell said in a Sept. 9 telephone interview. “We have an air sampling system that’s been working for a number of years.”
BioWatch is deployed in about 34 major U.S. urban areas in both indoor and outdoor installations. The system essentially consists of vacuums that continuously sample the air and require manual retrieval of samples on a daily basis for analysis by local laboratories. From the time of an actual biological event until sample analysis can be around 36 hours, severely complicating a response.
With BD21, McDonnell said the environmental triggers will communicate in real-time to command and control centers and include anomaly detection algorithms, enabling a responder to travel to the collection site and use handheld equipment to test for the presence of a potential bio-threat. Like BioWatch, samples will be collected and tested in a laboratory to help the Department of Health and Human Service determine what type of medicines may be needed to treat affected populations.
The faster detection times will also help local authorities sort out the proper response to an event, McDonnell said.
For responders, it’s just “one more thing” they do, he said.
The BD21 system triggers will be deployed in about 9,000 locations around the country, a scale well beyond BioWatch, McDonnell said. In addition to the triggers, McDonnell said his office will pay for other components of the system of systems, such as the handheld equipment, anomaly detection algorithms and the related communications capabilities.
There will also need to be software and training, integration and incident command and response.
For industry, BioWatch hasn’t been much of a business opportunity, especially since the Obama administration nixed development of a troubled third-generation system that proved too difficult to tackle.
For BD21, DHS wants to take advantage of mature technology.
McDonnell said the scale of BD21 and the capabilities that will be part of it will provide more opportunities for industry than have existed under BioWatch.
The CWMD Office is proceeding along two lines of effort with its new biological threat detection effort. One effort is the program of record that will be a traditional acquisition. The current plan is for DHS to receive milestone authority in September 2020 to enter the obtain phase of the acquisition and have BD21 fully deployed by 2025 to replace BioWatch.
The second effort is a pilot evaluation that began in December 2018 that includes the deployment of triggers supplied by four companies to 12 U.S. cities. Those companies are Air Techniques International, FLIR Systems [FLIR], Research International, Inc., and RTI International.
A spokeswoman for the CWMD Office highlighted that the use of these companies’ systems for the ongoing demonstration is not an endorsement of their technologies for the planned operational system.
McDonnell said that the triggers have been streaming data real-time data that is being collected. The CWMD team is working with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Laboratory to develop anomaly detection algorithms that can “recognize when something is wrong” by discriminating from “normal patterns and backgrounds,” he said. Lincoln Labs is funded by the Defense Department for research and development.
The algorithm testing is expected to last for some months, he said.
The pilot evaluation will also eventually include is the use of first responders to adjudicate alarms, McDonnell said. This builds off existing response operations in other areas such as radiological and nuclear, bomb squads and ‘white powder’ incidents.
This is new for the “bio-detection piece,” McDonnell said. “That’s really going to be the centerpiece of what’s different with this program. When the trigger goes off, the local first responder, with training and equipment, will be the responder that goes and tests the sample real-time and determines whether there’s a threat or not.”
McDonnell expects his budgets to stay about the same as BD21 rolls out. There will be a bump while BioWatch continues and the new system deploys but over time, he said, the spending will be about the same. Currently, DHS spends about $80 million annually for BioWatch.