Science and Technology News

Friday, May 29, 2015

DoD Launches Review of Lab Procedures Involving Anthrax


DoD News, Defense Media Activity

WASHINGTON, May 29, 2015 – The Defense Department is launching a comprehensive review of its laboratory procedures, processes, and protocols associated with inactivating spore-forming anthrax, according to a DoD news release issued today.

Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work today ordered the review after consulting with Defense Secretary Ash Carter, the release said.

No Risk to the General Public

There is no known risk to the general public and an extremely low risk to lab workers from the department's inadvertent shipments of inactivated samples containing small numbers of live anthrax to several laboratories, according to the release.

As of now, 24 laboratories in 11 states and two foreign countries are believed to have received suspect samples, the release said.

The department is working closely with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who is leading the ongoing investigation pursuit to its statutory authorities, the release said.

Monitoring the Situation

The department will continue to monitor the situation and provide updates to the public, the release said.

In addition to the CDC review, Work ordered all DoD laboratories that have these materials to test all previously inactivated spore-forming anthrax in the inventory, the release said.

DoD also is advising labs that received inactive anthrax from the department to stop working with those samples until further instruction from the DoD and CDC, the release said.

Comprehensive DoD Review

Work directed Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall to lead a comprehensive review of DoD laboratory procedures, processes, and protocols associated with inactivating anthrax, according to the release.

The DoD review, the release said, will consist of:

-- Root cause analysis for the incomplete inactivation of anthrax;

-- DoD laboratory biohazard safety procedures and protocols;

-- Laboratory adherence to established procedures and protocols; and

-- Identification of systemic problems and the steps necessary to fix those problems.

After the CDC investigation is complete, the department will conduct its own investigation with respect to any apparent lapses in performance and ensure appropriate accountability, the release said.

The department takes this matter very seriously and is acting with urgency to address this matter, the release said.

Work expects review findings within 30 days, the release said.

Medical Examiner Explains Identification Process



By Amaani Lyle
DoD News, Defense Media Activity

JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM, Hawaii, May 29, 2015 – A glass-walled lab offers a brightly lit view of tables displaying hundreds of meticulously placed bone fragments and other human remains, aligned much like military formations.

The lab has a sterile, silent feel, yet the scientists and lab technicians studying and handling the remains don’t seem detached as much as they seem focused.

Navy Capt. (Dr.) Edward Reedy, the first medical examiner for the newly reorganized Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, said he and his team use multiple lines of evidence -- circumstances, forensic anthropology, odontology and more -- to effectively identify service members.

Their Reason for Working

“This is not just a job,” he said. “It’s not some place just to come to work for eight hours and then go home. This is literally their reason for working.”

The captain noted that lab technicians and scientists understand deeply the importance of providing answers to next of kin, if only through trace evidence, decades later. He likened walking into the lab to walking into a church.

“It’s sacred ground to people,” he said.

With World War II alone having left more than 73,000 unaccounted for, many of them in the Asia-Pacific region, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency seeks to further enhance DNA testing techniques at the largest forensic anthropology facility and one of the largest pool of anthropologists in the world.

“We take a tremendous amount of pride in the scientific product and the ability to return missing American service people to their loved ones,” Reedy said. “We will periodically go back into our evidence and see if there’s any other material that has previously been unable to be identified because of its small size to be resubmitted for DNA.”

This process, the captain said, helps scientists try to identify even especially small bone fragments.

Less is More Through Technology

In the early 1990s, scientists had a minimum sample submission requirement of about 3 to 5 grams, with each gram about the size of a raisin.

“We’ve reduced that requirement now to less than 1 gram,” Reedy said. “So now 0.8 grams is the minimum sample size required for DNA extraction.”

The recovery process time frame can be daunting. It ranges from as few as six to nine months to decades, depending on the quality of the remains, which can vary depending on climate changes and the soil type where they were found. “For example, in Southeast Asia, the soil there is extremely acidic and will degrade the bone to the point where very little DNA is able to be extracted,” Reedy said.

Some remains, however, come with built-in protective covering, Reedy explained.

“Tooth enamel is the hardest substance in the human body, and it will literally survive decades,” Reedy said. The enamel protects the tooth material, which can significantly aid the identification process, he added.

It’s important to give a family answers about their missing relative, no matter how much time has passed, Reedy said.

Different Incarnations

Previously known as the Central Identification Laboratory, the facility has existed under several different incarnations since the end of World War II, but the science in earlier days was largely absent, Reedy explained.

“Back in the late ’40s and up until the early ’90s, there was no such thing as DNA technology,” he said. Scientists relied instead on anthropological techniques to identify recovered remains through race, stature or identifying marks or fractures, particularly on the bones, Reedy said.

But by about 1992, he added, advances in DNA technology occurred, allowing scientists to extract mitochondrial DNA from “ancient remains,” or skeletal material in which the decomposition process has already taken place.

Exponential Advances

“Mitochondrial DNA was the first technology method that was used to help in the identification process,” Reedy said.

Science overall has advanced exponentially, which has inherently yielded important partnerships with organizations such as the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, Reedy noted.

“AFDIL has really been a pioneer in advancing DNA technology -- not just for this laboratory, but the entire world,” the captain said.

While AFDIL scientists developed the extraction technique of DNA from bone, DPAA pushed for the evolution, Reedy said. “We were the driving force to make those advancements, to progress the science to the point where we could reliably identify individuals,” he added.

AFDIL developed demineralization protocol that completely removed all the calcium from submitted material, which releases the DNA in a sample during testing. “So not only is mitochondrial DNA released, but autosomal, nuclear DNA,” Reedy said.

Efforts Benefit Diplomacy

Reedy described DPAA’s worldwide, humanitarian mission as one that, in exchange for access to a country, can bring first-class medical care to a remote area, sometimes to villages that may have been deprived of treatment for years.

“It’s another extension of the Department of Defense’s mission to provide the best care to the world,” Reedy said. “That’s an advantage the country’s government can provide to their people.”

Reedy, also a forensic pathologist, said taking care of someone who is deceased is a task he values and treats reverentially.

“This mission really dovetails well into my training,” he said. “It’s very personal for me.”

Thursday, May 28, 2015

USB devices, fitness bands have no place on network

by James Butler
JBER Cybersecurity Office


5/28/2015 - JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- Did you know USB flash memory storage devices are not authorized for use on any Air Force information network?

In November 2008, U.S. Strategic Command banned the use of USB flash memory storage devices on the AFIN.

These devices include thumb drives, USB hard drives, PDAs, mobile phones, smart phones/watches, tablets/phablets, Fitbits, audio players, digital cameras, Go-Pros and e-readers.

This order applies to all active duty personnel, civilians, and contractors.

These devices threaten the base network by exposing it to vulnerabilities which could critically impact the mission of every unit on JBER.

The most common reasons for violating this network policy are simple - "I didn't know," "I forgot," or "I was only charging my phone/audio player."

Regardless of the reason, each violation subjects the base network to vulnerabilities like insider threats, recording/photographing/copying sensitive or classified data, data leakage, remote listening to sensitive or classified briefings, self-propagating malicious software, or infected firmware that can open command windows to download and install malicious software.

So what happens if you violate network policy and plug in these USB devices into your computer system?
It will result in a USB violation.

These violations are detected by means of network scanning.

Network-scanning software can detect when a USB device is plugged into a networked computer and even identifies the user logged-in to that system.
Scan results are sent to the base Cybersecurity Office for investigation.

When an unauthorized device is found on the network, the user's account will be disabled immediately and the respective unit commander or equivalent will be notified.

Prior to re-enabling the account, the user must re-accomplish DoD Cyber-Awareness training and complete Portable Electronic Device and Removable Storage Media training.

The user's commander must direct an investigation by the unit information system security officer and base Cybersecurity Office.

They will document findings, collect the user's training certificates, and coordinate with the Cybersecurity Office for network access approval by the 673d Communications Squadron commander.

The direct result of these violations is that they hinder productivity and take time away from mission projects - impacting the unit's mission through the investigation process.

Most network users may not realize that USB violations are, in fact, a violation of the UCMJ.

According to the 673d Air Base Wing Judge Advocate Office, a person responsible for a USB violation can be criminally charged with dereliction of duty under Article 92(3) of the UCMJ.

This may result in an Article 15 non-judicial punishment or other administrative actions.

Finally, disclosure of a USB violation must be reported by the user on security clearance applications - which may impact the issuance of the user's security clearance.

  So how can you officially use a USB flash memory storage device on your system without exposing the network to vulnerabilities or violating policy?
Your first step is to contact your unit ISSO.

He will coordinate your mission requirement to utilize the device with the Base Cybersecurity Office.

Only media devices pre-approved by the Base Cybersecurity Office are authorized to be connected to the network.

Users can contact their unit ISSOs for further guidance.

Don't be the person who violated the directive, plugged in an unauthorized USB device, and enabled a third party to gather intelligence from JBER's war-fighting networks.

Air Force's Space and Missile Systems Center Certifies SpaceX for National Security Space Missions

5/27/2015 - LOS ANGELES AIR FORCE BASE, El Segundo, Calif.  -- Lieutenant General Samuel Greaves, Commander of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) and Air Force Program Executive Officer for Space, has announced the certification of Space Exploration Technologies Corporation's (SpaceX) Falcon 9 Launch System for national security space missions.

SpaceX is now eligible for award of qualified national security space launch missions as one of two currently certified launch providers. The first upcoming opportunity for SpaceX to compete to provide launch services is projected to be in June when the Air Force releases a Request for Proposal (RFP) for GPS III launch services.

"This is a very important milestone for the Air Force and the Department of Defense," said Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James. "SpaceX's emergence as a viable commercial launch provider provides the opportunity to compete launch services for the first time in almost a decade. Ultimately, leveraging of the commercial space market drives down cost to the American taxpayer and improves our military's resiliency."

This milestone is the culmination of a significant two-year effort on the part of the Air Force and SpaceX to execute the certification process and reintroduce competition into the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program. The Air Force invested more than $60 million and 150 people in the certification effort which encompassed 125 certification criteria, including more than 2,800 discrete tasks, 3 certification flight demonstrations, verifying 160 payload interface requirements, 21 major subsystem reviews and 700 audits in order to establish the technical baseline from which the Air Force will make future flight worthiness determinations for launch.

"The SpaceX and SMC teams have worked hard to achieve certification," said Greaves.  "And we're also maintaining our spaceflight worthiness process supporting the National Security Space missions. Our intent is to promote the viability of multiple EELV-class launch providers as soon as feasible."

Elon Musk, SpaceX CEO and Lead Designer, stated, "This is an important step toward bringing competition to National Security Space launch. We thank the Air Force for its confidence in us and look forward to serving it well."

The certification process provides a path for launch-service providers to demonstrate the capability to design, produce, qualify, and deliver a new launch system and provide the mission assurance support required to deliver national security space satellites to orbit. This gives the Air Force confidence that the national security satellites being delivered to orbit will safely achieve the intended orbits with full mission capability. 

SMC, located at Los Angeles Air Force Base, Calif., is the U.S. Air Force's center for acquiring and developing military space systems. Its portfolio includes GPS, military satellite communications, defense meteorological satellites, space launch and range systems, satellite control networks; space based infrared systems and space situational awareness capabilities.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Human-robot Teams Compete June 5 at DARPA Finals


By Cheryl Pellerin
DoD News, Defense Media Activity

WASHINGTON, May 27, 2015 – In eight days, 25 human-robot teams will compete on the rubble-strewn field of a mock disaster, the robots driving cars, using tools and communicating with their human partners over degraded communication links, just like in a real disaster.

The final round of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Robotic Challenge, or DRC, will be held in Pomona, California, June 5-6. The challenge is a $3.5 million competition in which human-robot teams from 25 of the world’s top robotics organizations try to complete a simulated disaster-response course in the shortest time.

Each robot will have an hour -- under its own battery power and with no help in staying upright -- to drive 100 meters, get out of the car, open a door in a building, close a valve, use a tool to cut a hole in a wall, perform a surprise task, negotiate difficult terrain, exit the building and climb stairs to finish.

If a robot falls down, the DRC rules say, it must be able to get back up without help of any kind.

Hardest Test for Robots

To observers the robots may seem to move slowly, DARPA officials say, but the tasks they face represent some of the hardest tests of robot software and hardware ever attempted.

During a recent teleconference with reporters, DARPA Program Manager Dr. Gill Pratt said the DRC program began three years ago to improve robot disaster-response capabilities.

“The Fukushima disaster, caused by the earthquake and the tsunami and then the meltdown at the power plant, was a great inspiration for us,” he said, referring to efforts DARPA made after the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami to send robots whose development the agency had funded to the disaster zones.

“We don’t know what the next disaster is going to be but we know that we have to develop technology to help us address these kinds of disasters,” Pratt said.

Emergency Response Technology

Among the different disaster technologies, DARPA focuses on technology for responding during the emergency part of a disaster, during the first day or two, he said.

“This is not about, for instance, robotics for [restoring] the environment many weeks or years after a disaster, but rather the emergency response at the beginning,” Pratt added.

Robots have been around for decades, working in factories and cleaning floors, so, Pratt asked, why it is it necessary to develop new technologies for a disaster?

“The real answer is that when you have a disaster, one of the first things that occurs is a degradation of communications,” Pratt said.

Degraded Communications

During the DRC finals, observers at the public event will see 25 robots that are impressive mechanically, he said.

“Some of them look like an imitation of a person, some may look like some kind of four-legged creature –- there are all different shapes and sizes,” Pratt said, adding, “but that’s not the most important part of the technology we’re trying to improve.”

The critical goal is to improve how people and robots work together when they’re separated by a significant physical distance and the communication link between them is severely degraded, he said.

During the finals, Pratt said, “we will turn off communications for a significant fraction of a minute very often during the challenge.”

Beyond Physical Robots

“When you think about the DARPA Robotics Challenge, try to think beyond the physical robots that are there and focus on this very sporadic, very degraded communication between people and machines working together as partners,” Pratt said.

Because of degraded communications, the robots must have enough intelligence, for example, to open a door on their own rather than having the human partner tell the robot what to do every second.

But the human partners need tools as well, he added, “to give them situational awareness as to what is going on in the danger zone where the robot is operating.”

Half or more of the software’s computer science, or artificial intelligence, does not go into the robot but into the human interface -- the computers that human operators use to visualize what’s going on where the robot is, despite disrupted communications, Pratt said.

High Risks, High Rewards

All that computer software, he said, “is being used to help the effectiveness of both partners in this collaboration -– the human partner and the robot –- do something effective to mitigate a disaster during the first day or two.”

Pratt says observers will see a substantial fraction of the robots have difficulty as the 25 teams run through the course.

“We do that on purpose,” he said.

“DARPA takes high risks for high rewards,” he added, “and that means we also have a lot of challenges that we expect our performers to have.”

The challenge is quite hard, Pratt said, “ ... [but] we are expecting, or hoping at least, that some of the best teams will manage to do most if not all of the tasks.”