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At DARPA, the Future is Now

17 April 2008

Richard B Gasparre takes a look at the new innovations coming out of the US defence research agency.

If you ask people to free-associate defence technology and the Pentagon, chances are that the answer you'll get is DARPA – the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. That's because DARPA focuses on highly innovative technology, the stuff of science fiction. Here's DARPA's online pitch to prospective programme managers: 'We embrace high-risk, high-payoff ideas' that could 'provide disruptive change for the US military'.

In this spirit, we have selected five programmes or technological themes currently on DARPA's plate. To make the selection task more interesting, we deliberately excluded robotic and information warfare programmes, which have received much press recently here and elsewhere.

"DARPA focuses on highly innovative technology, the stuff of science fiction."


From the Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO) comes CLENS, the camouflaged long-endurance nano sensor. The programme's acronym should have substituted 'network' for 'nano': the system is actually a network of sensors that a few soldiers can scatter around to detect 'movement of interest' over a wide area, and the sensors themselves, being the size of a brick, are not really nanoscale.

Nevertheless, the sensor nodes are light enough, according to the programme statement, 'to cover large areas of interest with a quantity of nodes that can be easily transported and deployed by a small unit of action'. Presumably the sensors weigh much less than a brick. In any event, they can operate as a network while being separated by 60ft, and like the 'Energizer bunny', they can keep going and going for at least six months without service or battery changes.

IPTO anticipates that CLENS will deliver robust detection and low false alarm performance in urban, riverine, subterranean, forested, and similarly challenging environments. This is exactly what the US Army needed in Vietnam.


From the Strategic Technology Office (STO) comes the Visibuilding programme. There's no acronym confusion here – the goal is to create sensors that will enable soldiers to see inside buildings (from outside, of course).

Specifically, STO seeks a way to execute three functions: determine building layout, locate unusual quantities of materials, and find people. To achieve this, Visibuilding focuses on three primary technical challenges:

  • Phenomenology of signal penetration into buildings, which resist traditional radar and infrared detection
  • Sensor positioning and use to maximise information about the building, because unlike a human body being X-rayed, buildings come in radically different shapes, sizes, and materials. In other words, the more apt comparison is to an MRI scanner, except that the imaging devices ought to be smaller than the target
  • Model-based 3D building deconvolution that operates in a multipath-rich, diffractive environment. Translation: filtering out the echoes and distortions that buildings inject into signals, and then matching the remaining data, which doubtless will be incomplete, with 3D architectural templates that predict the full design with fairly high accuracy
"Visibuilding sensors will enable soldiers to see inside buildings."

STO actually runs a few programmes like Visibuilding. For example, Radar Scope is a handheld device designed to enable soldiers to 'see' what's behind a single wall. Therefore, seeing inside buildings is just one example of the larger effort to sense around or through obstacles – or SATO, if DARPA ever wants to consolidate these efforts into one programme with a single acronym.


Suppose all these sensors actually find something, like an IED cache that may or may not be booby-trapped. What to do then?

One solution being pursued by STO is the BDM (Biodemilitarisation of Munitions) programme. This concept envisions the use of bacteria, organic compounds, and/or other biological agents to render explosives harmless. This goal comprises two tasks:

Perforation of the explosive casing in a way that won't set off the explosive material inside. Given that most casings are metal, this job would not appear to require exotic cocktails – traditional sulphuric acid would work. Of course, the trick is to put the acid on the casing without allowing it to come into contact with the soldiers employing the system.

Assuming successful execution of task one, the end task is rapid decomposition of the explosive into something non-explosive. The actual chemical pathway would obviously depend on the nature of the explosive material. For example, a neat trick would be to reverse-brew ammonium nitrate explosives back into fertiliser – which would be the 21st century equivalent of beating swords into ploughshares.

It doesn't take a genius to see that the possibilities are endless here. Suppose the explosive is ammonium nitrate mixed with fuel oil (ANFO)? That's even better, because reverse-processing ANFO could yield not only fertiliser, but also gasoline. Imagine solving the food, energy, and terrorism problems all at the same time – there's technological leverage for you.

"Seeing inside buildings is just one example of the larger effort to sense around or through obstacles."


Even a cursory count of DARPA's initiatives reveals four sniper programmes, three at STO and one at the Tactical Technology Office (TTO). This organisational messiness is characteristic of visionary research, in which one never knows where the next great idea will come from. This is also known as the Jackson Pollock theory of R&D: throw enough paint on canvas and eventually you'll get a masterpiece.

At least themes in technology are more transparent than in modern art. For example, these four programmes comprise a neat 2x2 matrix.

  1. From the STO comes a detection programme for offensive sniper operations: AWSS (all-weather sniper scope). The final product should, as the DARPA brochure states, 'enable shooters to see through fog and haze and provide increased range, accuracy and lethality in low-visibility conditions'. Engineers hope that new image processing techniques can exploit visible-light and infrared inputs to increase effective combat range by a factor of ten.
  2. You can't hit what you can't see, but seeing a target doesn't mean you'll hit it. Consequently, the STO also sponsors the unfortunately initialled ASS/OS programme (advanced sighting system / one shot). The goal is for snipers to 'accurately hit targets with the first round, under crosswind conditions, at the maximum effective range of the weapon'. To do this, the associated technology will systematise what snipers have traditionally done by feel: measure downrange atmospheric turbulence, humidity, and other relevant factors over a wide range of operating conditions (see AWSS).
  3. Unlike very high-tech operations, sniper tactics are a two-way street, but if DARPA has its way, none of the future traffic will be incoming. Enter the C-sniper (counter-sniper) programme, which aims to detect and neutralise enemy snipers before they can engage US Forces. Given that snipers don't advertise their presence before the bullet crack, the C-sniper system is expected to operate in always-on mode from a moving vehicle. Presumably, the signatures to be exploited can be inferred from DARPA's own offense programmes – e.g. radiation from laser scopes, or reflections off optical scopes.
  4. C-sniper is actually a follow on to a larger programme called Crosshairs. Managed by TTO, Crosshairs is aimed at producing systems to detect enemy bullets, RPGs, (ATGMs) and mortars fired at US military vehicles and to prevent them from striking the vehicle. Incredibly, threat identification and localisation will be accomplished in sufficient time to enable both automatic and man-in-the-loop responses. In other words, Crosshairs would be the Superman of defensive systems – faster than a speeding bullet.

Should the enemy be firing kryptonite, Crosshairs also includes an offensive component that presumably would enable the 'firee' to shoot right back at the firer, or if C-sniper works as planned, even before. The best defence is still a good offense – or so we think, although it would be interesting to see a tag team match of AWSS and ASS/OS against C-sniper and Crosshairs.


From the TTO, finally, comes MAHEM, the magneto-hydrodynamic explosive munition. Like the Navy's planned railgun batteries and DARPA's own electromagnetic-launch mortar, MAHEM addresses the conceptual inefficiency of conventional high explosive: by nature, it explodes equally in all directions.

"The best defence is still a good offense."

This is inefficient because the target usually lies in one direction, and although current techniques like shaped charges or self-forged fragments improve efficiency, they impose a price in terms of absorbed and therefore 'lost' energy.

The nice thing about electromagnetism, by contrast, is that it lines up along a single directional axis. A system that can precisely generate and control EM energy, therefore, can generate more kill for the bang, so to speak, because every single fragment created can be tailored for and directed at a specific target.

As the sales brochure says, 'MAHEM [can] accurately time multiple (and aimable) jets and fragments from a single charge with much higher velocity, hence increased lethality and kill precision, than conventional EFJ / SFP'. In this respect, MAHEM is like the 'anti-fight club' – it takes the chaos out of destruction.

Such a system would have many benefits, especially defensively. In particular, asserts the TTO, challenges such as destroying incoming shells or missiles, or even neutralising mine explosions, would be feasible.