The next wave of defense

SPECIAL REPORT | Mutating threats shape DARPA's research in a wide range of new technologies

THE LITTLE CLOCK THAT COULD: The tiny atomic clocks promise to make GPS systems more reliable while using little power.

NIST Photo

In a conflict where the biggest threats to soldiers often are low-tech, homemade explosives, it might not be obvious why troops need a more precise atomic clock to support their efforts. But the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency is working to deliver such precision, along with 13 other future icons that span a range of science and technology, from networking to air vehicles, biology and lasers, DARPA Director Tony Tether said.

The Chip Scale Atomic Clocks (CSACs), for instance, would perform key control functions throughout Pentagon networks and also could help warfighters detect an enemy's presence.

All the Future Icon projects involve the application of computing resources to solve present and future defense missions, and some directly attack the problems of improving information technology performance for existing systems and futuristic computer architectures.

And they are the types of projects whose impact often extends beyond their original scope, affecting the development of technologies used elsewhere in government and commercially.

'They are tremendously difficult technical challenges that will be hard to solve without fundamentally new approaches ' ones which may require bringing multiple disciplines to bear and perhaps even result in entirely new disciplines,' Tether said in testimony submitted recently to the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Terrorism, Unconventional Threats and Capabilities.

One of the most ambitious of the futuristic computer design projects is a five-year project to build a system modeled on the human brain, which would reflect and incorporate human assessments of the roles and intentions of people (see sidebar).

Shape shifters

The research agency is also probing highly advanced IT challenges such as the Programmable Matter project, which aims to develop software that would allow physical objects to change their size, shape, color and other attributes to fulfill changing functions within, say, a military communications system.

CSACs would tackle more immediate concerns in defense networks and in helping soldiers detect enemy vehicles and facilities, according to a leading scientist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology who is researching the technology with DARPA support.

DARPA's research is honing computer-based methods of detecting purposely hidden or naturally elusive enemy targets underground or on the high seas.

The CSAC project has been driven by the increasing need to reliably assure continual synchronization of systems linked via the Global Information Grid, said Thomas O'Brian, chief of the Time and Frequency Division at NIST's laboratory in Boulder, Colo. The lab receives DARPA funding to support the development of chip-scale atomic clocks.

The tiny clocks could be deployed in hundreds of systems that military organizations at all levels rely on, including not only radios but also radars, sensors and location units that use the Global Positioning System, O'Brian said in an interview. The atomic clocks promise to make GPS systems more reliable while using little power, along with providing other helpful features, such as low weight and small size, he continued.

The CSACs 'are significantly more accurate than the quartz crystal units ,which have been the standard' for such timekeeping, O'Brian said. The new generation of small clocks relies on the vibration frequency of elements such as cesium and rubidium to maintain their steady timekeeping and does not involve radioactive materials.

The tiny clocks can operate for as long as two days or more using the power available in a AA battery, O'Brian said.

'Another aspect of these devices is that they can serve as magnetometers,' he added. As such, the CSACs could sense the presence of metallic objects, such as mines or tanks. 'You could scatter them across a wide area so when a Jeep or tank drives over, they might detect it,' O'Brian said. 'Or they could detect the presence of ventilating fans in [al Qaeda caves] in Tora Bora [Afghanistan].'

CSACs already have proved themselves in demonstrations using GPS devices, and the technology showed that it could help navigation units function when satellite signals aren't available, O'Brian said.

Some of the main tasks remaining before the CSACs reach routine use include:

  • Developing efficient, low-cost mass-production methods.
  • Improving the small clocks' resistance to field conditions such as vibration, temperature and pressure variations and shock.
  • Reducing power consumption.

O'Brian expressed confidence that researchers could soon achieve those improvements.

The research agency's push in the fields of 'detection, precision identification, tracking and destruction of elusive targets' has spawned several research projects. One group of them aims to improve methods for finding and investigating caves, and another centers on tracking seaborne vessels.

The cave research has gained momentum partly from the response of adversary countries' forces to the success of the Pentagon's spy satellite technology. Countries such as Iran and North Korea reportedly have built extensive underground facilities to conceal some of their nuclear-weapon production facilities from orbiting sensors.

The underground research spurred by such strategic threats also has led DARPA to study how better cave technology can aid tactical operations, such as by helping soldiers discover enemy troops and weapons lurking in small caves and by helping detect cross-border smuggling tunnels.

The Counter-Underground Facilities program aims at developing sensors, software and related technology to:

  • Pinpoint the power, water airflow and exhaust vents from cave installations.
  • Evaluate the condition of underground facilities before and after attacks.
  • Monitor activities within cave structures during attacks.

According to DARPA procurement documents, the Pentagon's cave program began by developing methods to learn about those conditions and other features of caves via Measurement and Signature Intelligence (Masint) technology.

Masint methods involve the use of extremely sophisticated and highly classified technology that can integrate information gathered by various types of sensors, including acoustic, seismic, electromagnetic, chemical, multispectral and gravity-sensing devices.

DARPA's underground facility research project also involves investigation of the effluents coming from vents connected to cave complexes. Effluents for Vent Hunting research can involve the computerized evaluation of smoke to distinguish, for example, between decoy cooking fires and real cooking fires in an area where hostile forces may be roaming.

On the high seas, the Predictive Analysis for Naval Deployment Activities (PANDA) project is refining its existing technology to track the location and patterns of more than 100,000 vessels and to detect when ships and boats deviate from normally expected behavior.

Suspicious behavior

As such, the PANDA research is similar to other systems that use exception detection to pinpoint unusual behavior by people in airports or train stations. Developers of those counterterrorism systems have carved out the task of teaching systems what types of events to watch for among the countless mundane activities observed via video cameras in the transportation hubs.

Like the PANDA system, the exception-detection software for airports flags unusual events ' such as an errant freighter in one case or an unattended satchel in the other ' and brings them to the attention of human analysts.

At the edges of computer science, DARPA is approaching the problem of attracting and cultivating talent to the field of computer science partly by asking promising students to choose projects that strike them as interesting and attractive.

'One of the ideas the students liked is Programmable Matter,' Tether told the congressional subcommittee members. 'It is an important idea that is of significant relevance to DOD. The challenge is to build a solid object out of intelligent parts that could be programmed so that it can transform itself into other physical objects in three dimensions. It would do this by changing its color, shape or other characteristics.'

The programmable matter project could, for instance, lead to the invention of a malleable antenna that could change its shape depending on the radio or radar to which it is connected, Tether said.

'The computer science challenges are to identify the algorithms that would allow each element of the object to do its job as the object changes, while staying well coordinated with the other elements and functioning as an ensemble,' he added.


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