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Sensor Web Supports Tactical Teamwork

September 2001
By P. Michael Hoffman and Veronica Deschambault

Plug-and-play system offers remote control capability for joint operations.

Networking technology currently under development will allow users to monitor and operate sensors from a single, central, distant location. In tactical scenarios, this capability will reduce the need to send soldiers into the field to check or activate sensors. The system features an optional radio communication module that enables it to operate much like a wide area network, and ease of installation and portability make it a candidate for use in military training exercises.

Although intended to network biological and chemical agent detection sensors, the system can accommodate various types of sensors, including weather, particle counters, metal detectors, motion detectors and other sensors used in defense, security and safety operations.

Sentel Corporation, Alexandria, Virginia, is designing the technology under a cooperative research and development agreement (CRADA) with the U.S. Defense Department’s Joint Program Office for Biological Defense (JPO-BD), Falls Church, Virginia. The system will be available this fall and will enable the armed services to gather and process data from remote sensors more easily.

According to Brian J. David, technical director, JPO-BD, a tactical biological agent detection system is needed. “Sentel’s technology potentially offers us a way to link existing systems and modules and bring them together as a network. The network provides a tactical user, meaning someone who is a first responder, with the ability to link existing equipment. That’s the real strength of this concept. Now I can hook in disparate sensors, ones that don’t normally talk to each other, and make them all talk together so that one person can monitor a network. The concept is to have an ensemble of pieces all pulled together,” he explains.

JPO-BD was founded following operation Desert Storm. Since then, the office has developed several systems for detecting, identifying and warning of biological agents. These systems target different defense needs such as protecting large areas and battlespaces and monitoring fixed sites such as airbases, ports and air space as well as ships. They gather air samples, test them, read the results and send the information to a central point. Sentel’s previous work supporting the JPO-BD’s development of these systems gave the company the experience and background required to undertake the networking project, David notes.

A five-member engineering team from Sentel’s Technology Integration Group based in Dahlgren, Virginia, began work on the project in April 2001. The prototype technology, called remote data relay (RDR), consists of a radio and a computer housed in a case that is currently the size of a small VCR but will likely be half that size in its final state. The weatherproof case will withstand the rigors of field use.

The system can run on a variety of power supplies—universal (90-264 volts alternating current) utility power line, 12- or 24-volt battery packs and vehicle direct current electrical systems. Users can connect four to six sensors to each RDR box by plugging in cables. Communication is achieved by either an Ethernet or a direct serial connection. RDR relays data to a remote location, where its users both control and monitor the sensors by directing them to start or stop particular activities.

RDR was designed to be flexible. Like their commercial counterparts, government organizations experience many operational delays, limitations and uncontrolled costs as they try to integrate systems used among multiple offices, service branches or locations. System compatibility is a particularly prominent issue in joint military operations because equipment used by the different service branches must communicate to support a joint mission.

The controlling software in RDR was developed to be as generic as possible to minimize the time and expense of integrating it with existing and new sensor systems. When a new sensor is added, RDR’s controlling software does not need to be rewritten, as the basic interface remains unchanged. Instead, a small piece of code is added to map the sensor’s data and incorporate it into the system. As a result, new sensor integration can be completed in as little as a single day, which reduces overall system integration and configuration time.

If a sensor has an RS232 output plug, it can be attached quickly to an RDR box. The system will configure itself, and if a problem is detected, personnel in the central command post can correct it. Under battlefield conditions, the ability to quickly get in and out of an area with a minimum number of troops at risk is a big advantage, David offers.

The system’s ease of use mimics a plug-and-play operating environment. “RDR is kind of like your computer. If you need to put in a board, you plug in something. If you need a CD-ROM, you can plug in another piece, all operating through one serial interface,” David says. Multiple RDRs also can be linked, allowing a nearly unlimited number of sensors to be networked, he adds.

“If this device works as advertised, I think it will have a fairly major impact on allowing equipment to be networked and to be used efficiently. The flexibility is a big benefit. If you go into an operation and you don’t need detector XYZ, or you need two of them, RDR allows you to plug those in and bring just what you need to handle the scenario you’re facing. It potentially could be fielded to all the services because we are the organization that is responsible for advanced production, development and fielding to the joint services,” David says.

CRADAs, he explains, provide incentives for both government and industry to pursue innovative technology. They allow the government to partner with companies to develop a needed technology without a contract or funding. This approach to system development can save the government considerable research and development costs and can provide the industry partner with a product that will meet government requirements, he adds.

Under this CRADA, the JPO-BD influences RDR development, tests it and provides feedback on all of its features and functions. While Sentel does not receive any funding for the development costs of RDR, it expects the completed RDR system, designed to meet JPO-BD specifications, will be purchased by JPO-BD. Sentel retains ownership of the design, so it can market the system to other government or commercial groups.

“We don’t even know how good this can be until we actually get it out in the field and test it. The requirement is really to meet the need for a near-term tactical sensor system,” David explains. The JPO-BD will be testing the system through the late summer and early fall at Dugway Proving Grounds, Utah.

“This is where we do all our open-air dissemination of simulants and tests for biological [agent] detection components, and we have several tests that will be ongoing in August and September that we want to piggyback the RDR onto. Once we start showing the utility, there’s going to be a plethora of testing because the users are really adamant about having something they can use in a tactical scenario. This will give them the leverage to do that. We all have a lot of components, chemical and biological sensors, and linking them together is our primary need,” David relates.

Time and testing will reveal the full scope of government and commercial applications for this innovative technology, he adds. The RDR could be used to control and monitor sensors in metal detectors at airports, schools and government offices, reducing the number of security personnel required to operate the system. It could supplement the operation of fire prevention and control systems in buildings, allowing users to safely check and operate smoke, heat and moisture detectors from a remote location. As concerns rise about incidents of bioterrorism, municipalities may employ biological agent detection systems and use RDR for networking sensors.

Additional information on Sentel Corporation is available on the World Wide Web at

P. Michael Hoffman is Sentel Corporation’s principal investigator for the remote data relay project. Veronica Deschambault works for and specializes in articles about e-commerce.