Research Lays The Foundation

December 2004
By Maryann Lawlor
E-mail About the Author

Alan Huffman, research engineer, Microelectronics Center of North Carolina Research and Development Institute (MCNC-RDI), examines an experimental silicon wafer for a U.S. Defense Department project being conducted at the institute.
Military turns to nonprofit organization for advanced systems groundwork.

A research and development organization originally created to boost economic development in North Carolina is now providing cutting-edge technologies to the U.S. Defense Department. Areas of exploration range from information assurance to sensors to ultrahigh-speed communications. Many of the projects will facilitate intelligence gathering and directly support warfighters.

Funded by the state, the Microelectronics Center of North Carolina (MCNC) was established in 1980 in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. In the mid-1980s, it implemented a statewide network for state universities. During the 1990s, the organization spun off four companies and became a nonprofit private organization with two sectors: MCNC Grid Computer and Networking Services and the MCNC Research and Development Institute, or MCNC-RDI. In addition to their own projects, these two entities co-own the MCNC Ventures Limited Liability Corporation, which provides venture funding for North Carolina firms. Approximately 75 percent of the MCNC-RDI’s work is conducted for Defense Department programs. Its primary customer is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Ken Williams, vice president, materials and electronic technologies division, MCNC-RDI, explains that his group focuses on a number of different technologies in various categories. The division’s work in novel sensors and actuators includes polymeric actuator arrays, chemical and biological agent sensors, and microfluids. In the area of prototype development and foundry services, the group provides microfabrication and analytical services and display characterization. Core competencies include design and modeling, test and analysis, and polymer processing.

Two of the division’s projects funded by DARPA entail three-dimensional integration, which involves stacking integrated circuits directly on top of one another. This approach provides a greater dynamic range for signals by positioning analog processing closer to the sensor.

The Vertically Integrated Sensor Array (VISA) is being used to enhance infrared sensors in forward-looking infrared (FLIR) systems. Currently, FLIR sensor arrays are cooled to achieve a better dynamic range or signal-to-noise ratio. Partnering with DRS Infrared Technologies, the company manufacturing the system, MCNC-RDI research is employing its three-dimensional approach to place electronics behind each pixel in the array. As a result, the signal-to-noise ratio increases dramatically, so the signal’s integrity remains the same, but the sensor does not require cooling. This approach also could enable multicolor infrared images, Williams says.

VISA also is being used in work the MCNC-RDI is conducting as a subcontractor to Lucent Technologies’ Bell Labs in the Coherent Communications, Imaging and Targeting program (SIGNAL, July, page 45). The project primarily focuses on space-to-ground and ground-to-space communications, and on designing a way to correct for atmospheric distortions by moving micromachined mirrors to increase the bit rate on laser signals. This wavefront correction could improve targeting by facilitating high-speed communications, Williams notes.

The materials and electronic technologies division also is working with another company, Santa Barbara Infrared Incorporated, on an infrared scene projector. The MCNC-RDI developed and fabricated the microelectromechanical systems devices for the MIRAGE infrared scene projector. Pilots can use this technology in training to precisely guide missiles to targets. It also can be employed to test FLIR systems. The projector is being built on an infrared array and creates scenes artificially, eliminating the need to conduct live tests.

The division’s fourth project is a high-resolution projector that is being built for the U.S. military to assist in situational awareness. The goal is to develop a system that will allow military commanders to view maps with enough resolution that data is legible even when the maps are very large. Williams explains that two different approaches are being taken to provide this capability. The first is a rapid tiling system that could be used in a mobile command post. This technique would quickly tile images from multiple projectors in a very precise alignment. “Tiling is not complicated to do, but it takes time, which people on the move don’t have,” he says. The second approach is based on a high-resolution liquid crystal display projector. The MCNC-RDI is involved with the optics element of this solution.

In addition to materials and electronics research, the MCNC-RDI is researching several projects related to information assurance and networking. Dan Stevenson, vice president, advanced network research, MCNC-RDI, relates that his group focuses on network protocols, secure systems and high-performance systems. It currently is working on an information assurance program with the support of the Advanced Research and Development Activity (ARDA). The activity is an intelligence community center that conducts advanced research and development related to information technology.

The MCNC-RDI’s work in this area focuses on the detection of insider attacks on information systems with a solution called Ferret. “If you talk to people in the information assurance or information security realm, they often say that 75 percent to 80 percent of attacks on networks are from trusted insiders,” Stevenson states.

A flexible array of integrated force actuators, part of the MCNC-RDI’s microfabrication work, enable precision movement with reduced weight and higher energy density for use in artificial muscles, robotics and precision positioning.
Although several approaches could be used to address this problem, the MCNC-RDI team has chosen to concentrate on the workflow analysis angle. The method examines the benefits of fusing data from a number of stovepiped systems to detect suspicious activity.

“This approach looks at people using systems and creates rules associated with transactions. It looks at the audit information generated in software systems and threads its way through this information to be sure that transactions that occur on these systems follow the rules. If activity is occurring that is against the rules, it flags it,” Stevenson explains.

For example, personnel at some facilities use a badge to gain physical access to a building, log into their computers, then log onto their e-mail. Each system logs in information, but because the information resides in different databases, it is not collated. “Our system creates an audit trail and checks it against the rules. It coordinates the logs, so if a person didn’t ‘badge in’ to get into a building or log onto a computer but the e-mail is being checked, it identifies this as suspicious activity,” he says. The technology would not stop a person from accessing the information but would detect the activity and alert the appropriate personnel, he adds.

Stevenson points out that this type of capability would have red-flagged Federal Bureau of Investigation agent Robert Hanssen’s activity. Hanssen, who allegedly shared secrets with the Russians during the Cold War, was using the bureau’s database to examine active cases. “But he was also checking on the investigation on himself. This wouldn’t have stopped him, but it would have detected the activity,” he notes.

The MCNC-RDI has conducted some early demonstrations of the capability, and Stevenson says that by the end of this year a more complete system will be available and ARDA will make a decision about pursuing the approach.

Along with its work in information assurance, the Advanced Networks and Information Systems Division is examining technologies related to the Integrated Router Interconnected Spectrally (IRIS) program underway at Lucent Technologies’ Bell Labs (see page 59). Funded by the intelligence community, the division’s work on IRIS is aimed at developing ways to optimize transport and network protocols. Just In Time (JIT) signaling was initially developed to work with optical networks to create optical paths across the fiber network.

JIT eliminates the round-trip handshake that traditionally occurs when  data is transmitted. “If I send a message, it’s like saying, ‘Mother, may I send this data?’ and this request is either accepted or rejected. This takes time. With JIT, it’s a one-way handshake. It’s like saying, ‘Get ready, mama; here comes the data,’ right before it’s sent. It doesn’t ask permission; it sends a warning. This eliminates the latency in the field, where latency is the enemy because decisions have to be made quickly,” Stevenson explains.

This approach was deployed in the Washington, D.C., area in the Advanced Technology Demonstration Network and for the National Reconnaissance Office and National Security Agency. It also has piqued the interest of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as a way to better manage spectrum. “There are two ways it could make better use of spectrum. Analysis of optical networking shows you get greater use of the optical network with this technique. And, although the analysis is not done yet, the suspicion is that it would be useful in radio frequency networks as well,” Stevenson notes.

The MCNC-RDI also is working in the field of signal electronics. Dr. David Strube, principal research engineer, signal electronics group at the institute, explains that his sector applies physics and mathematics to signal acquisition, analysis and exploitation in the electromagnetic spectrum. Among the group’s technology focus areas are distributed robotics, battlefield surveillance and ad hoc radio frequency networking. All of the group’s work is conducted for government agencies, primarily the Defense Department.

The MCNC-RDI signal electronics group has developed channel estimation and adaptive equalization techniques. The Adaptive Channel Estimator is a method for modifying existing 802.11a and 802.11g wireless local area network algorithms to allow them to be installed and effective on vehicles traveling at normal or high speeds. With this approach, personnel in the vehicles could continue to pass data at high speeds and hold signals for a long period of time. This capability would be particularly useful in mobile ad hoc networks, Strube says.

Additional work the sector is involved in is based on the idea that devices such as vehicles and computers emit signals in the electromagnetic spectrum. Approaches are being examined that would enable the tracking of vehicles and computers by finding and exploiting the electromagnetic signals they emit.

The MCNC-RDI has a number of military, government and commercial clients, including the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Army, NASA, the National Science Foundation, the intelligence community, biomedical device manufacturers and digital optics companies. The institute has announced its intent to sell its divisions that conduct contract research for the U.S. government to RTI International, an independent nonprofit research organization also located in Research Triangle Park. Despite the sale, which is scheduled to take place during the fourth quarter of 2004, the researchers will continue to work on the same projects.

Web Resources
MCNC Research & Development Institute:
MCNC Grid and Networking Services:
RTI International:

Enjoyed this article? SUBSCRIBE NOW to keep the content flowing.