MSU research project would help keep waterways secure

Published 7:58 pm Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Engineers at Mississippi State University are working on a homeland security project aimed at thwarting terrorist threats on U.S. inland waterways.

Officials said the joint research project between the university and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory seeks to devise a computer tracking and monitoring model that will identify in real time river-based barges and other vessels carrying potentially dangerous cargoes.

Mississippi State’s department of industrial and systems engineering, using a $441,000 research grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, plans to develop and field-test a prototype system early next year.

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“The proposed system will alert decision-makers to possible security threats by identifying strange carriers, strange destinations and deviations from pre-trip plans, including schedules and routes,” said Mingzhou Jin, an assistant professor with the engineering department.

“It is expected to provide early warnings of terrorism related to barge-carried cargoes designated as dangerous by DHS and share the warnings with state, regional and local leaders for better decision-making in disaster prevention and response,” added Jin, principal investigator for the two-year project.

The university said some 800,000 daily shipments of hazardous materials are viewed as a potential threat to U.S. security because they can be used by terrorists as weapons of mass destruction.

In response to increased terrorist threats related to hazardous material movements on the U.S. inland waterway system, towing vessel operators and fleet area managers at specified reporting points are required to notify the Coast Guard’s Inland River Vessel Movement Center of moving barges carrying certain dangerous cargoes.

Those cargoes might include certain explosives, blasting agents, poisonous gas, oxidizing materials, liquid materials, radioactive, or fissile materials, bulk liquefied chlorine gas, and other flammable or toxic materials designated as threatening by DHS.

Royce Bowden, who head the industrial and systems engineering department, said the current reporting process is manual — telephone, fax or e-mail — and cannot identify and monitor barges with dangerous cargoes in real time.

The proposed system is expected to automatically track and monitor those barges and communicate the real-time information to a computer data server, he said.

“The system we are developing is expected to help reduce workload and errors caused by manual document processes,” Jin said.