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Homeland Security looks to fast-track technology development

U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officer Jefferey Hill checks the trunk of a motorist's vehicle entering the United States at the border crossing in Buffalo, N.Y.

U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officer Jefferey Hill checks the trunk of a motorist's vehicle entering the United States at the border crossing in Buffalo, N.Y. // David Duprey/AP

Federal officials are contemplating a shift to a faster, two-year schedule for fielding security innovations at border checkpoints and other domestic locations that support homeland security.

The traditional government procurement cycle can prolong system testing, alone, for half a decade. Officials describe “rapid prototyping” as a relatively novel process for small-scale manufacturing in the defense sector. With shorter production periods, the Homeland Security Department could supply its partner state and local agencies with the latest tools, they said.

This building approach, for example, could facilitate faster installation of border surveillance sensors to stop illicit crossings, DHS officials suggested. In cities, rapid prototyping could enable public health authorities to immediately diagnose symptoms of biological attacks and monitor their spread. Cybersecurity protections could be upgraded faster, to keep pace with evolving threats.

This week, the research and development arm of DHS, the Science and Technology Directorate, began asking vendors and research laboratories about the practicality of the concept for domestic defense purposes. DHS officials want to know whether they and the private sector are on the same page as far as what rapid prototyping means and how it will – or will not – work at DHS.

The directorate “is driving to a 24 month innovation cycle from project inception through operational testing for its shorter term project[s] in order to rapidly develop and field technical prototypes” that support homeland security operations, a Jan. 23 questionnaire states.

The survey asks inventors for advice on the types of contract details the “government should provide in order to receive sound white papers and technical and pricing proposals.” It also lets the developers explain their business interests in working with DHS, but discourages them from submitting proprietary creations yet.

Responses are due on Feb. 22.

The Pentagon’s research and development branch, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, has arguably succeeded in conducting similar quick turnarounds. DARPA’s Cyber Fast Track program lets ethical hackers churn out low-cost security fixes in about a year.

“The Cyber Fast Track program has been a massive change in the way DARPA does business,” Dave Aitel, a computer scientist at the Pentagon’s National Security Agency during the 1990s and now CEO of cybersecurity firm Immunity Inc., told Nextgov in November 2012.

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