SPRINGFIELD, Va. (April 2, 2015) – While modernization programs across the Department of Defense have shrunk, science and technology involving sensors and other capabilities has not – at least not yet, Dr. Mike Grove said.
The reason for that support is that sensors are relatively inexpensive when compared to the big weapons systems they protect, not to mention the protection they afford to Soldiers, he said.
Grove, who is principal deputy for Technology and Countermine, Army Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center, Night Vision and Electronic Sensors Directorate, spoke during a National Defense Industrial Association-sponsored Sensors Community of Interest seminar here, March 25.
To clarify a point, while military sensors are inexpensive in the big scheme of modernization, they are actually quite expensive compared to sensors used in the civilian sector because military sensors must be extremely light, rugged and powerful, Grove said.
Civilian-sector sensors have proliferated to the point that they are in nearly everything from cars to common household appliances, he said. They can report the status on temperature, humidity, levels and compositions of chemicals, infrared signatures and on and on.
While it would seem convenient and logical to simply repurpose commercial sensors, it is easier said than done, Grove said. Sensors used by the military are very specialized in battlefield surveillance and target acquisition, two broad focus areas his Sensors Community of Interest, or CoI, is engaged in. It is hard to find commercial sensors that are up to the task.
Occasionally, however, the private sector will come up with novel ideas that the military can use, like infrared driving cameras, he said. Companies have invested a lot of research into signal processing for these devices, and that can and is being repurposed by the Department of Defense.
Sometimes, the reverse is true, where non-DoD entities can use military-developed sensors. For instance, law enforcement is using DoD-developed forward-looking infrared radar, or FLIR, sensors, he said. These sensors use thermographic cameras to sense infrared radiation. Such systems can detect humans and vehicles that are running (or have been) a few miles away through their heat signatures.
Sensors used by the Army and Marine Corps are among the hardest to develop, Grove said, because they become part of the Soldiers’ load – and Soldiers are already overloaded as it is.
Also, Soldiers slog through mud and snow and their equipment takes a beating, as do they sometimes, he said. That means miniaturization, lightweight materials and use of an efficient power source are prime considerations for Soldiers, as well as the small, unmanned aerial systems they carry to the battlefield.
Sensors for the Air Force and Navy, by contrast, are a lot easier to develop because there is a lot more room in ships and aircraft to place them and the weight requirements for sensors is negligible compared with the added load for a dismounted Soldier, he said.
WE’LL OWN THE ATMOSPHERE
“We own the night,” has been a mantra for Soldiers for a number of years now, due to the use of night-vision goggles. That advantage has eroded over time as night-vision technology has proliferated worldwide, he said.
Rather than conceding the advantage and un-owning the night, Grove said the plan at Sensors CoI is to “own the atmosphere.” By that, he means, developing sensors that can see or feel through dust, smoke, heavy snowfall and so on.
If that can be done, or rather, when that is accomplished, it would be in the Army’s best interest to purposely operate in extremely degraded conditions to get the upper edge over adversaries who are not similarly equipped, he said.
It is even possible to purposely create turbulent conditions that would bring that about, like introducing dust or smoke for example, he said.
Having said all that, the Army could use a lot of improvements on its current run of night-vision goggles, he said.
Ideally, the Army would like low-light, low-weight, low-noise night vision that’s high definition color and comes at an affordable price tag. The technology probably exists to do that now, sans the affordable price tag.
If anyone in industry has such an affordable device “come see me before I leave the podium,” Grove quipped to a conference room full of industry reps.
The key to developing such a system, he said, would likely come from small, powerful integrated circuitry.
PACIFIC PATHWAYS SENSORS
So-called pathways through the Pacific are cluttered, Grove said. Pacific Pathways refers to the Army’s prevent, shape, win strategy in that region.
That clutter is dense jungle foliage interspersed with cities which are fast becoming urban-jungle megacities, all of which pose challenges to sensor ability to transmit data where line-of-sight is hindered, he said. Also, the vastness of the Pacific Ocean could easily hide underwater threats not readily perceived by sensors.
The Pacific region in particular calls for a special category of “wide-area persistent surveillance” sensors, both active as well as passive that can overcome this clutter, Grove said.
Ideal sensors for those areas would allow Soldiers long-range standoff sensory capabilities. That means those sensors would need to be especially powerful, he said. One idea that offers possibilities is emplacing passive sensors on the ocean floor and awakening them when needed, thereby conserving their power supply.
The Navy is now using facial recognition sensors that can identify persons 100 meters away. They are using those sensors to see who is coming aboard their ships, but if the distance could be increased, Soldiers could use them to identify friend from foe, he said.
Another option is using sensors mounted on unmanned underwater systems, unmanned aerial systems or even on satellites in space, he said.
To defeat seeing through dense foliage, Sensor CoI is exploring the use of Laser Illuminated Detection and Ranging, LADAR, technologies. Simply put, LADAR creates 3D-image pictures using laser range-finding sensors, he said. Powerful algorithms are used to merge many images and separate the signal from the noise, with the signal being “focuses of interest” and noise being jungle clutter.
LADAR technology is being married up with OLED, or organic light emitting diode, micro-displays to provide suitable images, he said. OLED screens are small but pack surprisingly sharp imagery on them. They also work at night.
For megacity warfare, polarimetric temporal analysis synthetic aperture radar sensors are being enlisted. These sensors can detect non-stationary stuff like buildings from moving things like people and vehicles, and provide detailed information on what is moving and what is not. This is especially important for target acquisition, Grove said.
Another sensor technology for urban warfare, one that is now in operational use, is large-format, infrared focal-plane array sensors, which can be used day or night. They are placed on aircraft and provide “unprecedented, real-time, multi-target detection and tracking over wide areas” of urban landscape, he said. The sensors stream videos that identify objects through their heat signatures.
UNDERGROUND THREAT DETECTORS
Underground threats are not new. For instance, during the Civil War and World War I, soldiers of all armies engaged in tunneling under enemy lines.
With advanced tunneling equipment, militaries are stockpiling materiel, including, in some cases, weapons of mass destruction, underground and out of sight. Locating these underground threats beg for sensor solutions, Grove said.
Arrays of seismic and acoustic sensors placed at various depths could determine the characteristic signatures produced by underground tunneling, as well as signatures produced by personnel and equipment, he said. Some have been used at forward operating bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, but mostly for force protection.
Ground-penetration radar is another option, he said. These have been used in Afghanistan to detect mines and improvised explosive devices and Soldiers who’ve used them say they’ve saved lives. For example, some 2,000 MineHound man-portable devices have been used in Afghanistan to sense underground threats.
PROJECTILE DETECTION SENSORS
Projectiles, meaning rounds fired from guns, rockets and cannons are particularly hard to detect. Magnetic sensor technologies are yielding results in this important area, Grove said. And, they are not dependent on light or weather conditions as they operate using the Earth’s magnetic field.
Acoustic sensors are another category that can sense projectiles, he said. Police in Washington, D.C., began using them last year, so the technology is pretty mature.
BATTLESPACE AWARENESS SENSORS
Multiple-input, multiple-output, or MIMO, radar sensors are all the rage right now in sensor CoI, he said. They operate on the principle that several antennas and radars are better than one, providing greater bandwidth. When these sensors are dropped around the battlespace, their combined inputs to a central processing system can provide Soldiers a clear picture of threats they’re facing. If one sensor is jammed, other sensors can take over and continue to provide a clear picture.
Adversaries in the future are likely to acquire their own sensors, Grove said, which could in turn lead to counter-sensors, counter-counter sensors and so on. That could escalate the cost for producing new classes of sensors.
The Sensor CoI approach, he said, is to look at developing inexpensive, disposable sensors that can be programmed to do a specific task or several tasks and then be turned off or self-destruct to avoid the chance of them or their data being intercepted, as in an urban environment. Such sensors already exist which can detect noxious gases.
Sensors will continue to proliferate and the military will increasingly find ways to use them, as will potential adversaries, Grove said. There are many promising lines of research, including leveraging biomedical imaging sensors, which are now being used in the civilian world.
As for military-specific sensors where private-sector development has not yet occurred, cost can be a problem, he said, as the normal business model of investing emphasizes short-term profits. Military programs of record are usually long-term, meaning years.
ABOUT SENSOR COI
The Sensor CoI is divided into three working groups: electro-optical and infrared; acoustic, seismic and magnetic; and radio frequency (radar).
There are 17 communities of interest throughout the Department of Defense. In addition to the sensor community, there are counter-weapons of mass destruction, autonomy, space, human systems, electronic warfare, air platforms, cyber, ground and sea platforms, energy and power, advanced electronics technologies, materials and manufacturing processes, weapons technologies, C4I, counter-improvised explosive devices, engineered resilient systems and biomedical.
To make matters a little confusing, other communities are researching sensors as well as the sensor community. For example, there are sensors being used in space that are being developed by the space CoI.
Grove said his community concentrates solely on battlefield surveillance and target acquisition sensors. However, the various communities collaborate and share knowledge on sensors and other overlapping interests so duplication of effort is minimized.
The CoI effort brings the DoD science and technology enterprise together in what is broadly termed Reliance 21. It is sort of like the Army’s centers of excellence, or COEs, which also collaborate. Unlike the Army’s COEs, however, the CoIs are not physically located in one place under one command. It’s more of a loose confederation of common interests.