Developed in Estonia, a new tech solution helps victims of terror attacks

The NATO-funded Tallinn University of Technology scientist, Muhammad Mahtab Alam, is making lives safer with smart technology.

This article is published in collaboration with Research in Estonia.

Only a couple of years ago, in the pre-COVID19 world, fears were vastly different as terrorist attacks were sending shockwaves throughout Europe. The pedestrian zones got blocked, the debates about the full-face veil were heated and more cameras appeared on the streets.

Between 2015 and 2018, 687 terrorist attacks were either carried out, failed or were foiled in the European Union, according to Europol. That is about every second day on average. Remember those days?

This seemingly old reality has not disappeared. The hard-line Taliban movement, for instance, is now stronger than ever. At the same time, law enforcement authorities are usually not prepared to respond to terrorist attacks, putting their own staff’s lives in danger.

It sometimes takes long hours for the rescue teams to put down the attack and get people to safety, especially when the infrastructure has been harmed and people cannot call for help using conventional means.

This got Estonia-based telecommunications researcher Muhammad Mahtab Alam thinking. He decided to do his part and give people the power to seek help.

Muhammad Mahtab Alam. Photo by Heiki Laan / Taltech.

Counter-terrorism technology

Public safety communication in the context of terrorist attacks is not a widely researched field. Alam’s team is the first one to study this.

Launched in June 2018, Alam’s project received funding by NATO Science for Peace and Security Programme that listed counter-terrorism technology as one of its priorities. The first prototype should be ready next summer.

For Alam, an avid problem-solver, everything comes down to connectivity. That is what he focuses on.

The team, led by scientists and experts from Estonia, Italy and Pakistan, is developing technologies that would be able to transmit critical information using available devices like smartphones, in case the infrastructure is harmed and usual means of calling for help are not available. The connection would be created with drones and beamforming, a technique that focuses a wireless signal towards a specific receiving device. People could send out basic information like the amount of people captured, their locations and identity, and the number of terrorists in the area.

This could speed up the much-needed help. “And hopefully the terrorists will think twice before attacking if there is such technology,” Alam said.

His solution could create the connection within minutes.

But this is just one example of Alam’s problem-solving quests.

Cognitive systems

After working and studying in several countries in the Middle East and Europe, Alam was selected to join Tallinn University of Technology (Taltech) and help set up a cognitive technology hub COEL as an ERA Chair. This is what brought Alam to Estonia.

According to a professor at Taltech, Toomas Rang, everything moves towards cognitive systems. Artificial intelligence solutions can also be cognitive. An easy example is a self-driving car that senses, collects data, transmits information, analyses it and makes decisions. Even our smartphones are cognitive.

Rang’s idea to create new tech-solutions in Estonia was funded by the European Commission’s ERA Chair action that supports the movement of scientists to the so-called emerging European countries like Estonia. The goal of the action is to help universities keep up to date with the changes in the world. ERA Chair holders are expected to create sustainable structural changes within the universities.

As a principal investigator, Rang invited Alam to lead the project.

They brought in an international team of six people and started writing projects for further funding. With Alam on board, the hub was created within only four years.

“I was previously mostly carrying out projects, but now suddenly it was my job to come up with new ideas. I discovered my creative side,” Alam said.

His unique perspective and knowledge quickly became apparent. Alam sees things differently and it enriches Taltech’s Thomas Johann Seebeck Department of Electronics, professor Rang said.

Their team of scientists from Estonia, France, Hungary, India, Pakistan and Tanzania, is closely working with the industry to foster cutting-edge research topics. For instance, they are working with Telia, one of the biggest telecom companies in Estonia, to help them improve their service.

Technology is making medical workers happy

Alam’s team is also working on a smart support for people with neurological diseases like multiple sclerosis, a condition that the father of the former US first lady’s Michelle Obama struggled with. Because of issues with balance, multiple sclerosis patients often find it difficult to walk.

The technology, funded by the Estonian Research Council, is meant to pre-empt them from falling. It can predict it and stimulate the muscle exactly as much and as strongly as needed to avoid the collapse.

The patient would be carrying a device, such as a smartphone, that acts as the brain for the orthoses with sensors connected to the person’s feet. In this case, the sensors would be sewn to socks, which is something the students of the Estonian Academy of Arts are already working on.

The existing electrical stimulation device (left) compared to the smart solution (right) that Alam’s team is currently working on. Image by Muhammad Mahtab Alam.

Heigo Maamägi, a physiotherapist at West Tallinn Central Hospital closely works with the team. “Ten years ago, when exercises or operation didn’t bring results anymore, I had to tell my patients that there is nothing else I could do for them, but now I can turn to technology for help and that makes me happy,” he said.

Maamägi is soon able to recreate a healthy person’s walk using Alam’s smart system.

Alam sees technology as something that could extend the human potential and empower us as human beings. “We’re not trying to solve everything,” he explained. “We’re just giving our small part in making lives a little better.”

Cover: Muhammad Mahtab Alam with his team members (from the right): Alam, a PhD student Ali Masood, Professor Yannick Le Moullec and a PhD student Sikandar Khan. Photo by Heiki Laan / Taltech.

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