August 7, 2023

Researchers Securing Soft Targets, Crowded Places through Science

Workshop focuses on future of school security

Photo of attendees watching two soccer teams compete in a sports stadium. Overlaying this photo is a digital web with icons representing mobile devices, user accounts, camera, laptops, text messages, and internet connectivity all connected together.

PNNL is advancing research to protect people in crowded places.

(Image composition by Shannon Colson | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)

Sports arenas, classrooms, airports—places are crowded again. People are back at work, school, and play, and researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) want to protect them.

“Crowded spaces present really complex security challenges that make them vulnerable to attack. We are exploring how science and technology can reduce that threat and increase security, all while being minimally intrusive or disruptive to the experience people are seeking in the first place,” said Nick Betzsold, PNNL data scientist and aviation security and soft target subsector lead.

Commonly referred to as soft targets, well-populated and unprotected places present an opportunistic threat environment. Through collaboration with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Soft Target Engineering to Neutralize the Threat Reality (SENTRY) Center of Excellence led by Northeastern University, PNNL is advancing research and development of next-generation tools and methodologies to protect such places. The recent SENTRY Spring 2023 newsletter highlights one such effort: the Future of School Security virtual workshop.

Coordinated by PNNL and SENTRY, the event convened first responders; federal, state, and local government; industry technologists; school administration; and school security personnel to take a 5- to 10-year look into the future of school security. Specifically, participants envisioned how a well-structured Virtual Sentry Framework could support a safe, learning-conducive environment. The effort resulted in an 80-page report to guide the next steps in SENTRY visioning and development.

The PNNL team remains engaged with DHS S&T and SENTRY to explore future focus areas, such as transportation hubs. They welcomed DHS Science and Technology Directorate Soft Target Security Program Manager Ali Fadel to the laboratory for a visit to learn more about the laboratory’s capabilities in May 2023.

“We have a lot of opportunity in our toolbox—sensors, data analytics, risk modeling, and decision support tools—that are already at work on homeland security challenges, and we will continue digging in to see how those can be applied to more,” said Doug MacDonald, system engineer and physical security advisor.

PNNL is also leveraging its academic partnership and joint appointments with Northeastern University on a range of national security challenges, including risk analysis and resilience for critical infrastructure. To learn more about PNNL’s academic partnerships and opportunities, visit

Published: August 7, 2023