Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Terrorists, Tiptoe Through the Tulips Please?

“Never let it be said that horticulture can’t fight terrorism.”

Yes, folks. You read the right; terror fighting plants are in the works.

If you’ve been reading Danger Room, as you should be, you already read about this. But it was too entertaining to not blog about and someone has to go first. And North Korea hasn't done anything crazier than normal of late. So without further adieu...

Apparently June Medford, a plant biologist at the University of Colorado has been working for the past seven years on a project, funded by DoD, to teach plant proteins to detect explosives. You can read all about how this project evolved into its current state from an original plan for computer-designed receptors in the Danger Room article. But right now, imagine the scene: As a man walks into the baggage claim area (which we know from the recent Moscow airport bombing is not a high-security area) the fern next to the door blanches white – responding to the TNT packed into his briefcase… then what?
I suppose it would be nice to know when a man with a bomb walks into a room but we’re still left with the issue of what to do next. As we touched on briefly in class today, detection is one part and neutralizing the threat a different creature altogether.  
Cool as this concept is, it has some serious deficiencies.
For one thing, as mentioned in the article, plants would be useless at detecting explosives based in fertilizer material, such as ammonium nitrate. So the terrorist-detecting plant can only detect terrorists who use less earthy explosives. Then comes the concern of what to do next, after detection. Some in the extreme may suggest just neutralizing (read that as killing) the suspect on spot. But when a crowd walks through the doors and the plants go white, what use is that other than to notify security that somewhere in the crowd is a bad, bad, person and the rest are unfortunate bystanders to a tragedy in 5…4…3…2… you get the idea. So, even if all the kinks are worked out… practicality wise, it may not be that great an idea. Also, if the plants are sensitive enough to detect an explosive walking by, they must be able to detect a very small amoung wafting through the air. I see false alarms written all over this. What about the man who works at a fireworks manufacturer? His trips to the airport will be considerably more irritating and stressful if he gets nabbed every single time he walks through the door.
Of course, such plants may be more of deterrent than a true detector. And in that case, this project may have found redemption but needs serious help if it would be even viable for that task.
This brings me to something we’ll get to at the end of the semester and is (especially next to terror-fighting tulips) a really boring subject… defense budgets.
This project pulled $2 million from DARPA, an additional million from the Office of Naval Research and another $7.9 million thrown in by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. While not astronomical that's a nice bit of money for a cool science project. Nearly $12 million dollars on a detection system with limited applicability and a number of intrinsic issues, it seems a rather silly expenditure to me. 
It would be much kinder to send people through a patch of petunias on their way into the airport, as opposed to getting their junk touched or scanned by TSA, but alone the plants cannot save us from the nasty fact that there are people who want to blow us up. I think this avenue should be pursued because it’s simply downright cool science and could form a part of future security lines that smell nice and feel less grope-y. But even if the science is there in 4 years, this could just be a gimmick with the lone result of ticking off fireworks handlers...