US harnesses hi-tech to 'predict' terrorism

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As part of its war on terrorism, Washington is urging business and scientists to develop an array of hi-tech gadgetry that will make James Bond look positively prehistoric.

Its "wish list" includes:

* Ground-penetrating radar. The Pentagon wants to be able to peer through rock-solid terrain to spot caves and terrorists inside them. Existing ground-penetrating radar is not up to the task, because it can detect only shallow-lying objects like land mines.

* Homing devices. Real Mission Impossible stuff, the aim is to plant "tags" on military and civilian targets to track the movement of humans and equipment. This request includes the means for planting the tags, and hopes for a system that provides a combined big picture.

* Voice and face recognition systems. The Pentagon is looking for several items to spot a face in a crowd, or a voice in a broadcast or phone conversation, that matches up to a database of suspects' attributes. The core technology exists, but the US wants more powerful systems which can work on the spot, rather than after the fact.

* Explosives and toxin detectors. A wide range of devices are being sought that detect explosives from distances of up to 200 ft, and on people while they are moving rather than stationary. Equipment is also wanted to detect and neutralise toxic emissions, and which can show whether captives have been working with agents of mass destruction.

* Terrorist prediction systems. One of the most far-fetched "wishes", sophisticated software and hardware would predict where terrorists would strike next, possibly drawing on database and pattern recognition software such as that made by Autonomy of Cambridge, and "complexity systems" such as those developed by London's Legion Ltd.

The Pentagon is looking for results that lead to usable goods within 12 to 18 months. It has already received over 12,000 replies to its appeal for "unconventional surveillance and reconnaissance systems".

Jeffrey David, of the co-ordinating body, Technical Support Working Group, said products could end up in the commercial market, as have past TSWG devices. A sampling kit for biological agents was "out in limited numbers right now". While "not everyone could afford" a $2m gamma ray-based large vehicle bomb detector, he said, the department could also offer a $12 security checklist in the form of a flip-chart.