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.
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.