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Military Research Reorganization Consolidates Technologies, Goals

July 1999
By Robert K. Ackerman
E-mail About the Author

Agency creates new office to focus on three areas encompassing a broad range of related developments.

Smart mobile mines, underwater attack trumpets and an artificial dog’s nose are some of the products that may emerge from a newly reorganized defense research office. The reorganization reflects a growing interdependence among various electronics technologies, according to defense officials.

At the heart of this consolidation is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) advanced technology office (ATO). This office, recently created as part of an agency reorganization by director Frank Fernandez, combines new and ongoing research efforts under three distinct areas of applications.

The new ATO aims to develop advanced systems and technologies from various research programs formerly scattered across the agency. Many of these efforts began as unrelated programs, but research generated technologies that could apply across disciplines. Others involved parallel development of similar technologies for different applications. Some programs were fonts of innovation but did not have a specific focus.

Part of the rationale for this consolidation is to encourage closer teaming cooperation among the different offices, according to Dr. Thomas W. Meyer, ATO director. He explains that ATO’s three focus areas are special operations/early entry forces, maritime technologies and communications. Other DARPA offices are researching technologies that could provide benefits to these areas, and narrowing the focus of the organization is expected to help facilitate interaction.

For special forces, ATO is working on diverse projects such as tactical robots, unattended ground sensors and mobile mines. The office is trying to bring these technologies together to support early entry and other dismounted forces.

Developing a new type of anti-armor land mine is a high priority in light of the global move to outlaw antipersonnel land mines. These devices often are placed to prevent individuals from clearing anti-armor mines for tank columns. If another way could be found to defeat these mine clearing methods, then anti-personnel mines would not be necessary.

The office is pursuing technologies that would permit anti-armor mines to move across terrain to fill in a cleared area. Self-repositioning mines would comprise a network of mines that are aware of the battlefield and each others’ status. If one region is cleared of mines, others nearby would move quickly into place to reconstruct the field. Low-level communications would connect the devices in a simple intranet, and they would operate semiautonomously. They would be aware of each other’s location with the aid of embedded global positioning system (GPS) receivers.

To reposition elements of the group, one approach is to put a small piston on the underside of each mine. An explosive charge or other device would drive the piston out to propel or hop the mine in a certain direction. Meyer describes this as the fastest method under research for repositioning. Other possibilities include equipping the mines with small mobile treads or crawlers.

In work to develop tactical mobile robots, a primary objective is to determine how they can perform activities that humans cannot. Meyer emphasizes that these robots would not replicate people but instead would engage in wholly different activities. Urban warfare could be a prime beneficiary of this technology. Operations in built-up areas present challenges to forces unfamiliar with neighborhood or even building layouts. Meyer describes one experiment with a robot that can enter a building and map the interior, showing accurate location of walls, doors and stairwells. This information could be transmitted to troops outside to help prepare them for entry and search.

A key technological hurdle is perception, Meyer allows. This involves a host of sensors just for situational awareness. Mobility is another challenge. Conventional wheeled vehicles can be confounded by stairs or debris, so other means of locomotion must be considered. An additional issue is device autonomy. Whether a tactical robot would be tele-operated, autonomous or semiautonomous remains to be determined. A remote-controlled robot could find itself cut off from its controller by a building that blocks a radio link, for example. The device could either continue on a semiautonomous program or retreat to re-establish links.

Another program for special operations/early entry forces aims at developing unattended ground sensors. These might consist of a family of acoustic, audio, visual, infrared or electromagnetic sensors that would relay vital surveillance and situational awareness information to forces. Topics of interest include size—how small they can be built—cost, intelligence and capability. Some devices could be multisensor, which might require multiplexing signal output, for example.

A critical question would be whether data is to be processed at the sensor or back at a central receiving site. A series of unattended ground sensors could be internetworked, including a handoff capability that alerts more distant sensors to objects moving in their direction. Embedded GPS would provide position location.

One device already developed can be fired out of a 40-millimeter grenade launcher and attach itself to the side of a building. A small but rugged television camera transmits low-frame-rate video that can be viewed by a soldier through a palmtop receiver.

A different kind of sensor would mimic the operation of a dog’s nose. It would simulate the dog’s sense of smell, which can detect odors as faint as a few parts per million. Dogs can sense some land mines, for example, and an electrochemical mechanical version would allow wider deployment of this capability without risk to life, human or canine.

This system would be designed to detect explosive-unique scents. In effect, the sensor would trade traditional methods of individual chemical identification for odor recognition. It would need to provide highly specific, fast, highly sensitive chemical identification.

The second ATO focus area is maritime research. Meyer notes that, in the past, it tended to be a small part of DARPA’s mission. However, placing maritime research under ATO increases its emphasis, he says.

One key effort in maritime technology research involves submarine payloads. The thrust is “to do something different with submarine payloads than has been done with them in the last 100 years,” Meyer says. Moving beyond traditional torpedo and ballistic missile uses, submarines have “tremendous capabilities.”

Torpedoes may be the next capability to engage in network-centric warfare. In one example, a ship or aircraft would drop a network of sonobuoys into the water to locate an enemy submarine. When a conventional torpedo is launched against the submarine, the craft deploys appropriate countermeasures that offer the potential for some degree of success. The sonobuoys, however, would be networked with optical fiber. A similarly connected torpedo would receive constant updates on the submarine’s location versus that of the countermeasures. This would allow the torpedo, which would process the information from the sonobuoys, to ignore the countermeasures and home in on the real target.

For underwater combat or mine clearing, the office’s water hammer project seeks to provide an acoustic solution. This device would employ a phase array of shock tubes to generate and focus underwater shock waves into a pressure pulse of more than 2,000 pounds per square inch. In effect, it would serve as an underwater attack trumpet, destroying objects hundreds of meters distant with sound.

Meyer explains that research focuses on an explosive wave generator powered by a reactant mixture of finely granulated aluminum and seawater. A horn would form the exit vehicle for the energy waves out of the source tube. Converging waves would reinforce each other in a zone away from the front of the source. The ability to focus shock waves differentiates water hammer from conventional methods of dropping explosives in the water.

A major challenge is to detonate several explosive sources simultaneously to form the converging wave—and to perform the process repeatedly. Another hurdle is to reduce the size of the device. Current designs are massive, Meyer explains, to withstand the force of the shock-wave generation.

This device would be useful in clearing a corridor through a minefield or defending against some torpedo attacks. It would be effective in either deep or shallow water and could provide rapid targeting and destruction of subsurface threats.

Combining maritime and communications elements is the buoyant cable array program. This is geared toward developing high-gain antennas on a towed cable that would be deployed from a submarine. Current towed array antennas serve only low-rate communications such as extremely low frequency (ELF) transmissions. Providing high-data-rate and high-bandwidth communications with satellites or aircraft presents several challenges, however. One approach is to outfit the cable with phased antenna segments that would allow operators to steer the output and reception. Meyer notes that this research looks at L band and possibly K band, which involves hundreds of kilobits per second.

The third ATO focus area, communications, represents a greater degree of consolidation among diverse programs. Dr. William A. Jeffrey, ATO deputy director, explains that the agency does not want to “reinvent the wheel” while the commercial sector moves at a rapid pace. Accordingly, the office is concentrating on military-unique aspects of communications technology development. These include data quality assurance and security issues, for example.

Leveraging commercial advances, ATO has several programs that center on mobile wireless communications. These links would be engaged from dismounted soldiers through the topmost echelons. Airborne communications nodes (SIGNAL, April 1999, page 65) and satellite communications are part of this effort. Most of these programs operate through universities or commercial vendors that are leading the communications revolution.

Jeffrey notes that one challenge is to operate across the spread of military legacy systems. Achieving this can involve a wide range of frequencies and protocols, and forces must be able to communicate in a cost-effective manner. This mandates smarter systems that are either frequency agile or can accept almost any protocol and output to the next layer. It encompasses both legacy systems and future communications from military or commercial satellite mobile systems.

Quality of service is another issue, as forces likely will operate in rugged terrain that restricts communications. Under these circumstances, commercial technologies fall far short of military requirements, Jeffrey notes. For example, cellular telephone dropouts that are a minor annoyance to mobile telephony users are critical communications problems for military forces in theaters of operations.

Jeffrey states that commercial communications technology research has changed emphasis in recent years. “Basic ‘Big R’ research really peaked several years ago. The [commercial] emphasis is on shifting the ‘Big R’ into the ‘Big D’ of development.” he says. Multiple telephony services are competing against one another in the marketplace, and while no one can predict a winner, emerging technologies are visible. “The crystal ball is getting a little less fuzzy in terms of where communications is going over the next few years,” Jeffrey allows.

One project underway involves a small unit situational awareness system that Jeffrey describes as a communications program for a dismounted soldier. Other efforts include the global mobile program, use of Internet protocol for mobile wireless systems and the airborne communications nodes. Jeffrey relates that these programs concentrate on mobile wireless systems ranging from peer-to-peer individual links to an airborne communications node that could interface up to a satellite and down to Earth. Specific technology issues include co-channel and co-site interference.