Rolf Dietrich is the U.S. Homeland Security Department’s gadget man, an MIT-trained engineer and ex-nuclear attack submarine commander who is trying to come up with futuristic equipment that could be used to thwart terrorists for generations to come, says USA Today. Dietrich serves tens of thousands of airport screeners, Border Patrol agents, Customs and Coast Guard officers and others tasked with preventing and responding to future attacks.
From anti-missile drones that might hover over airports to protect commercial airliners to behavior recognition technology that could help agents recognize a person with ill intent, the projects are all very high-tech, very hush-hush and, in some cases, very far-fetched. “The projects that I’m working on are expected to fail,” says Dietrich, who controls 1 percent of the science and technology division’s budget, or about $8 million in fiscal 2007. Among projects being examined: hurricane mitigation technology that would stop storm surges with strategically timed underwater blasts; cellphones outfitted with tiny biological, chemical, and radiation detectors; unmanned aerial vehicles that could detect and deflect shoulder-fired missiles aimed at commercial jets. The cellphone idea “definitely is one of my favorites,” Dietrich says. Parney Albright, who used to run some of the same kinds of innovative projects at the Homeland Security Department, says some of Dietrich’s projects waste tax dollars. “If they thought about it for 10 minutes, they’d say, ‘I’m not going to spend any more money on it. It’s stupid,’ ” says Albright, a security consultant. “It’s always good to be thinking out of the box, but the people who are responsible for this need to exercise a lot of judgment because it’s really not their money,” he says.