Q&A with Andre Hentz, acting deputy under secretary for Science & Technology (S&T) with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)
Q: What led you to a career in S&T?
I had a profound interest in science and technology from a young age. I grew up in Asheville, N.C., in the mountains, and my brothers, cousins, and I watched a lot of science fiction—Star Trek, Battle Star Galactica, Buck Rogers. We liked things that challenged our imaginations. We would then take that to the playground and emulate what we had seen on TV. I think from my formative years that led me to always have a need to better understand science and technology.
I did a tenure at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), where I worked in the advance technology office as a business financial manager. There, I met Dr. Reggie Brothers, who would later become the DHS under secretary for S&T. He hired me at DARPA to manage his portfolio and was a key enabler to quench my thirst in S&T. He took the time to teach me what his crazy projects were trying to achieve. We executed programs in LiDAR, radar, and ISR.
Currently, I serve as the alter ego to the current DHS under secretary for S&T William Bryan. I provide oversight for the S&T budget, which is managed through a staff of about 475 federal employees plus contractors. We support the directorate in protecting the homeland by providing state-of-the-art S&T solutions and resources to federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial partners.
Q: How do S&T’s R&D efforts contribute to the DHS mission space?
Our research is multifaceted. We ensure DHS and the homeland security community have the resources needed to prevent manmade natural disasters and also to provide response and recovery from threats manmade and natural. We develop tools to protect the nation and infrastructure from chemical, biological, radiological, and cyber attacks.
We seek to leverage other technological advancements throughout the government and make them appropriate for domestic use. A lot of times DoD may have made investments that with minor tweaking can be tailored to what we do here at DHS.
S&T serves as a trusted partner for DHS operators and we maintain complex roles and responsibilities. We directly provide the Secretary of Homeland Security with fact-based information to aid in decision-making.
S&T is the executive agent to 13 bilateral partner-sharing agreements for the purpose of sharing technological solutions and understanding around the thrust of homeland security. The agreements allow us to better collaborate, share research, and essentially buy down each nation’s risk in these areas. Most recently, we’ve been working cyber research in the Netherlands and also with our British counterparts trying to figure out technologies to assess and understand UAVs.
Q: What is the importance of precision location information and ISR assets across DHS mission sets?
Location is critical to a first responder being fully protected, connected, and aware. We consider precision location a key research area. For example, the POINTER technology we have provides context-aware tracking capabilities for first responders.
As automated vehicles come online our cyber division is working with the Department of Transportation to have a safety and security layer embedded in the engineering process. We are trying to ascertain how to add a layer of geospatial location information in this domain to ensure a vehicle is on its correct path and that it is where it believes it is.
All of the data in the world, if not taken advantage of, is just all the data in the world.
Another example of how we’re looking to take advantage of geospatial data is Polar Scout—an endeavor in which the Coast Guard is partnering with S&T to see if we can enhance maritime awareness in the Polar North. Recently, the first cruise ships started sailing in the Northwest Passage. That’s going to bring into consideration other business opportunities through that northern passage and that will ultimately yield an increased workload for the Coast Guard. We’re doing an analysis of alternatives to determine whether an inexpensive satellite constellation for the purposes of search and rescue would be appropriate. This would give the Coast Guard better intelligence in terms of who’s up there. It might also offer common opportunities and provide persistent geospatial information to understand when to deploy valuable assets such as cutters and other equipment in that potentially dangerous area.
Q: Is S&T doing any research in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning?
Absolutely. Within the Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency (HSARPA) we have a data analytics engine and right now they are conducting research into the latest developments in machine learning. We are partnering with many organizations interested in machine learning and AI. In recent work with TSA we examined the performance of risk assessment algorithms for aviation security. This will result in technical information used by TSA in considering future operations. HSARPA also hosts regular workshops where a variety of big data techniques are discussed.
In the area of cargo transportation we have an initiative in which we’re trying to characterize and give organizations like the Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) better assurance that cargo coming into the United States truly aligns with the manifest that’s sent ahead. One of our novel approaches seeks to better characterize the pollen discharges on shipping containers to see whether the native origin of the pollen matches what’s stated. Machine learning and AI will assist in accelerating these use cases.
Q: How are advanced data analytics and visualization changing S&T’s approach to its research?
All of the data in the world, if not taken advantage of, is just all the data in the world. We’re always trying to figure out novel ways to give an enhanced view of what the data means to decision-makers. The user interface associated with how data is displayed to a decision-maker is one part of the puzzle. We try to eliminate the proverbial ‘crap on a map.’
In our Flood Apex program, S&T aims to help the Texas region better understand what is happening in the Rio Grande area with respect to flood potential. We want to help decision-makers understand when flooding is imminent and interface with existing systems to give visual understanding of the exact area that might flood. This helps decision-makers make the call on whether to evacuate or to be confident there is an acceptable level of risk and tell residents to shelter in place. These kinds of initiatives are scalable to the entire first responder and homeland security enterprise.
Q: How is S&T helping address the challenge of management and analysis of video content acquired by UAVs?
We always work with our friends at CBP who use larger UAV platforms to collect video for border security operations to see if there are better compression technologies or algorithms that could help them.
What we’re speaking to is a much larger big data problem most government agencies are faced with—trying to understand what the real data repository looks like. We don’t have the resources to store everything all the time at maximum resolution. DHS wants to answer how much of this data needs to be on station versus in the cloud. Do we need specific hypervisors that can pull data on demand as needed for specific use cases?
We’re looking to see if it’s possible to use TSA data sets in partnership with CBP and Homeland Security Investigations. Everyone has their own data sets that when aggregated don’t always avail to a structure that is easily usable and discernable by an operator. We’re working with partners to address this and develop tailored solutions that are crosscutting for the entire department.
S&T is also doing interagency work with regard to UAVs. The velocity of UAVs and their potential in the homeland is in the near future. This administration has articulated the need to integrate UAVs into the national airspace. We are working closely with the Federal Aviation Administration, DoD, and the Departments of Commerce and Justice to ensure as integration occurs the business case is fostered in such way to inspire and cultivate commerce while protecting the homeland.
Q: What advice do you have for young professionals interested in careers in homeland security and/or R&D?
If you’re seeking the geek or nerd cred, by all means, go forward and chase that passion. At DHS we are always looking for talented individuals, especially in areas of S&T as things come online like nontraditional financing, blockchain technology, synthetic biology, and the maker movement with 3D printing and other additive manufacturing. We need sharp, innovative, forward-thinkers who have a natural appetite for curiosity in these arenas. The dark web also presents asymmetrical challenges that we may not be thinking about. We make no assumption that we know everything.
We need to be futuristic in how we think about the workforce and we strive not to compete with industry, but to let them know DHS S&T is a viable option and we welcome them to the workforce with open arms.
Career Inspiration: Neil deGrasse Tyson
Favorite Movies: Apocalypto and Troy
Currently Reading: The Never Paradox by T. Ellery Hodges
Featured image: A CPB Black Hawk helicopter conducts a familiarization flight near New York City prior to the Super Bowl.