Army getting to the heart of the matter

Urban combat gets soldiers' hearts thumping and blood pumping like nothing else can. Now, the Army is looking for solutions that will let soldiers detect signals given off by a beating human heart.

In May, the Army released a request for proposals (RFP) for "remote sensing of the electromagnetic potential of the human heart." The service is accepting vendor proposals through Aug. 14, and officials expect to award a $70,000 contract in mid-September, said Jeremy McLain, mechanical engineer at Picatinny Arsenal, N.J.

The application will use fiscal 2004 funding. The winning vendor will produce a proof-of-principle device within six months. The second phase, which will be worth up to $500,000, will include the development and demonstration of a prototype, McLain said.

The human heart has an electronic signature that a sensor could detect by filtering out other noise and signals.

The Army would like the heart-detection system to weigh 5 to 10 pounds with a sensing range of 20 to 50 feet. If that range increases, the devices could augment other sensing solutions, such as infrared and light-amplification sensors. Combined with telescopic sights on small firearms, soldiers could detect a hiding enemy from even farther away, according to the RFP.

"I've seen a couple of abstracts on it from different sources that would suit the medical community and warfighters," McLain said. "Hopefully, it will get to be that precise to detect through walls — anything that will give [soldiers] an advantage in urban combat."

George Smith, a senior fellow at GlobalSecurity.org, said he was skeptical of the Army program's potential impact based on its modest funding levels and the fact that this is not really a new area of research.

"The entire budget for this is just about enough for one primary research and applications scientist, a couple graduate assistants or technicians who will work real cheap, a small lab space and hardware," Smith said.

McLain acknowledged that the program is "not on the radar screen for [Army] leaders just yet...[but if] Phase I shows promise, it will be more advertised at upper levels."

The goal is to have solid prototypes and initial production models in place by the end of the decade, he said, adding that if the solutions were available today, they could be used to aid in searches of palaces in Iraq or caves in Afghanistan.

"The immediate top challenge will be to rein in the silliness evident in a belief that something can be cooked up from microelectronics that will discriminate heartbeats 50 feet away through a wall in a city during combat," Smith said. "That's a request for a magic wand."

Len Goldstein, director of business and new product development at VSE Corp., said that although he was not aware of the Army's solicitation, VSE's Life Detection on the Move device already meets all of the service's criteria, except one: Its current weight of 25 pounds exceeds the Army's threshold.

One government security agency used VSE's solution to determine where hostages were in a building in relation to the terrorists holding them, Goldstein said, although he declined to name the agency.

In 1998, Dielectrokinetic Laboratories LLC claimed that some models of its LifeGuard solution could detect living human beings at distances of up to 500 meters through any material. The Energy Department's Sandia National Laboratories conducted a double-blind test of LifeGuard and found no evidence that it could do that.

DKL still advertises LifeGuard as an effective tool for detecting stowaways on trucks. The company has not submitted a proposal to the Army. "We're looking at it, but no decision has been made," the spokeswoman said.

McLain said about a dozen contractors have already expressed interest in submitting proposals, but he declined to name them.

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Listening for a heartbeat

The Army is looking for technology that will help detect a beating heart from as far away as 50 feet. The request for proposals lists two possible functions:

* Medics in the field could use a handheld device to determine the heart rate of a wounded soldier.

* Soldiers in urban combat situations could use an enhanced version to detect heart signals through walls, which could tell them how many people are in a room they are about to enter.

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