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Bay port joins terror fight

Researchers win a Navy contract to develop a high-tech system to protect ports.

By STEVE HUETTEL, Times Staff Writer
Published October 27, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG - SRI International is turning Tampa Bay into a laboratory for tying together various surveillance technologies to protect seaports from terrorists and other bad guys.

The Silicon Valley research firm said Friday that it won a five-year, $36.5-million contract from the Navy to develop a system of radar, sonar, underwater sensors and other devices that work in tandem to warn maritime agencies of threats to ports.

SRI and Pinellas County elected officials, who had aggressively courted the high-tech institute, predicted that work done in partnership with the University of South Florida will spread to ports around the country.

"They'll be using the Port of Tampa as a test bed," said Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores, who pushed to get $7.3-million into the federal budget for the project this year. "The work that is done here will pay off big time for the security of our nation."

After nearly a year of secret negotiations with local and state officials, SRI opened a St. Petersburg campus in January with $30-million in public funds and about 20 researchers hired from USF's Center for Ocean Technology. SRI's entry was a plum for the bay area, dovetailing with former Gov. Jeb Bush's goal of bringing top tech research companies to the state. The deal came after California's Scripps Research Institute promised to build a campus in South Florida, lured by more than $500-million in state and local incentives.

SRI is housed in temporary quarters at USF while awaiting construction of a 40,000-square-foot lab on the St. Petersburg waterfront.

Tying it together

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, port security has become big business. U.S. ports have spent millions to put up fences, screen visitors more closely and improve surveillance of secured areas. The federal government is requiring foreign ports that ship goods into the United States to tighten up security as well.

SRI wants a piece of the business. The Navy contract marks the first major project for its National Center for Maritime and Port Security in St. Petersburg, which has a staff of eight employees.

The Port of Tampa relies on a network of 200 closed-circuit cameras, plus patrols by its own security officers and Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies to watch for intruders. Port Authority and U.S. Coast Guard personnel in a command center follow movements of large ships, equipped with radio transponders, through Tampa Bay's 43-mile shipping channel on wide-screen video monitors.

Under the contract, SRI will install radar that can track vessels almost anywhere in Tampa Bay and to the end of the channel, west of the Sunshine Skyway. The first units will go up in January, said Gary Brown, director of the center and a former Marine Corps one-star general.

A separate radar will watch for low-flying aircraft around the port. SRI also plans to use underwater sonar to scan the hulls of cruise ships and miles of seawalls. Sensors placed below the surface will detect toxic substances in the water.

The hard part isn't finding the hardware. Most of the money and work will go into developing software that meshes all the information and alerts officers in a control center to potential threats, Brown says.

The system looks for "anomalies," he says. That could be an inflatable boat speeding toward a cruise ship or a freighter that appears on radar but has turned off its radio transponder.

Other U.S. ports such as Seattle, San Diego and Charleston, S.C., have radar or other capabilities, says Brown, but none has the whole package of surveillance technology, much less computer programs that tie them together.

The center will use six Florida subcontractors, most based in Pinellas or with local offices, including USF's College of Marine Science, St. Petersburg College's National Terrorism Preparedness Institute and Alak'i Consulting & Engineering.

Steve Huettel can be reached at or 813-226-3384.

About SRI International

Headquarters: Menlo Park, Calif.

Founded: In 1946 as part of Stanford University

Employees: 2,000

Business: Not-for-profit research firm that specializes in taking ideas and turning them into marketable products

Historical moments: It created the computer mouse and high-definition television.

Local connection: Opened a St. Petersburg branch this year, starting with leased space at the University of South Florida's College of Marine Science; backed by $30-million in state and county incentives, it is commercializing USF research relating to ocean science, the maritime industry and port security.


[Last modified October 27, 2007, 00:54:51]

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