TCS Daily

GI Joe as Superman

By Noah Shachtman - February 25, 2003 12:00 AM

This isn't quite Superman's X-ray vision. But it's close enough to bring giggles to anyone who's ever read a comic book.

The U.S. Air Force and Army are co-funding a project that allows, in a limited way, its troops to see through walls. It won't tell soldiers what color underwear Lois Lane is wearing. But it'll give a good idea of where she is in the next room.

"If you're going to blow down a door, you want to know what's on the other side - how many people there are, where they are, and if there are any objects in the way," said Ellen Howden, a researcher at the Army's Night Vision and Electronic Sensors Directorate.

There are a variety of technological approaches being tested in this program, called, imaginatively enough, "Through the Wall Surveillance." The furthest along relies on a modified radar sending out waves that penetrate wood and concrete, but bounce back when they meet flesh. Think of it like a microwave oven, Howden suggested, which emits radiation that passes through the ceramic mug to heat up the coffee inside.

Mounted on the forearm, the eight-pound "SoldierVision" system fires off 10 million pulses of sound per second, from the 1.2 to 3 gigahertz range. If the pulses hit a moving object, then SoldierVision identifies that as a person, showing blobs on a small screen.

But there doesn't have to be much movement in order to catch the system's eye.

"If someone's wiggling their finger, that's probably enough to get a return," said Bernard Clark, a program manager at the Air Force Research Laboratory, which is spending $6 million to research seeing through walls.

SoldierVision has been tested out at the Army's urban warfare training center at Ft. Benning, Georgia. The thought is the system would be deployed in hostage rescue situations, in capturing an enemy bigwig, and in house-to-house fighting. Its makers, Huntsville, Alabama's Time Domain, say the system works up to about 10 meters. An additional round of testing is scheduled for this September.

A bit further down the pike is an ultrasound-based set-up similar to the technology used to look at fetuses in the womb. Under development by Jaycor, a San Diego, California-based concern, the ultrasound system has an edge over the radar method: it can penetrate metal walls; SoldierVision can't. But Jaycor's approach has its limitations, too. It has to be placed against the wall, unlike the radar system. And Jaycor's product, for the moment, is big - the backpack-mounted prototype weighs the operator down with thirty pounds worth of batteries.

No matter what the technical details, potential users are greeting the systems skeptically.

"If you're using this in conjunction with sniper observers, or with a floor plan, this could be useful. But if you think you're just going to walk in, slap this against the wall, and find out anything useful, you're mistaken," said Tom Cowper, a SWAT team veteran now with the Society of Police Futurists

For now, however, these approaches are as close as one can get to seeing through Superman's eyes.

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