Advanced radar would 'see' through jungle to catch drug smugglers

Heavy foliage in thick jungles provides good cover for drug processors and traffickers in Central and South America, a problem a team at the U.S. Southern Command wants to solve with a combination of advanced radar, sensors and data integration.

“If the jungle has been untouched for several hundred years the trees are probably going to grow to somewhere around 150 feet or so and you will have a single canopy,” said Juan Hurtado, senior technology adviser to SouthCom's Science, Technology and Experimentation Program. “If you leave it undisturbed for another 200 years it will grow another 150 feet and you will have double canopies. Another 300 years and you'll have another canopy on top of that one.”

No single radar system can penetrate those multiple layers of canopies, so Hurtado’s team at SouthCom, which works with other military commands, civilian federal agencies and foreign agencies to find IT solutions, is working on a way to deploy multiple types of radar to try to “see” through the trees.

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The team is combining ultra high-frequency radar, very-high-frequency radar, laser radar and synthetic aperture radar, and integrating the data into a single, common operating picture.

“It takes a lot of physics,” Hurtado said. “If we develop a solution here, obviously our network of science advisers can utilize the same system in other regions of the world.”

It’s one example of the program’s effort to use new technologies — from sensors to alternative energy to data analytics — to help forces in the field. His team also is developing a system for monitoring intercoastal waters and rivers and differentiating between legal commerce and illicit trafficking.

“For some countries in the theater,” Hurtado said, “rivers are like major highways. It’s an important operational environment.”

Although Hurtado can’t go into detail for security reasons, he said the team is using a combination of acoustic and seismic sensors, along with video cameras.

Data collected from such equipment could be used to conclude, for example, that if a certain type of vessel is transiting a certain point at a certain speed at a certain time of day that it might be involved in illicit trafficking.

As with the new radar systems, the key challenge is tying together the massive amounts of data being delivered by the new technologies.

“How do we best optimize and integrate these sensors with the special cameras? It's a question of data integration,” Hurtado said. He predicted that the project – conducted by his office in conjunction with the Navy and several partner nations – is “within a few months of actually having something that we can share.”

SouthCom is working on similar capabilities for the open seas called “maritime domain awareness.” It calls for even more cooperation between nations.

“We have large bodies of water,” Hurtado said. “No one has all the capability to look at all the Caribbean, the eastern Pacific, part of the Atlantic. If you have the centers from each one of the partner nations integrated with the U.S. sensors then you have a better picture.”

Again, the challenge is integrating all the data. And doing so, he says, offers potentially great savings. “If you want to be developing operational centers in each nation, that probably would cost you somewhere between $400 and $500 million. It’s very expensive. Through the use of new technology that the department has already created we might be able to develop the same capability for $15 or $18 million,” he said.

Robotics and nano satellites are two other technologies SouthCom is exploring with its partners to both expand capabilities and hold down costs.

“We're looking to identify the best applications of robotics. Can we use them for force protection? Can we use them to do laborious tasks? Unmanned systems are low-cost, they can reduce the workload of forces and that warrants a special look into how we can best integrate them.”

As for nano satellites, Hurtado hopes they can greatly reduce the cost of operations.

“Getting satellites up into space used to be really expensive,” he said. “From there we evolved into developing microsatellites. Now we're looking at nano satellites, which are very small, loaf-of-bread-size satellites. Because of their size it's going to be a lot cheaper to get them up into space.”

In fact, NASA successfully launched a nanosatellite in November 2010, and the Army successfully launched its first nanosatellite in December of that year.


About the Author

Patrick Marshall is a freelance technology writer for GCN.


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