Real genius

Nimble robots, satellite-monitored remote sensors, and handheld translators and radiation detectors are among the new devices that could be available to government security officials this year as several research and development (R&D) projects start to bear fruit.

Much of the technology that will finally see the light of day has been in development for some time and was designed for missions other than those related to homeland security. But new concerns about terrorism have redirected many projects and resulted in a boost in funding and attention that has accelerated their development.

"There will be new refinements of those new technologies as people have ideas of doing it slightly differently," said Ray Bjorklund, senior vice president for market intelligence at McLean, Va.-based Federal Sources Inc., which studies the federal information technology market.

Among the many projects, two that are funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are in their final stage this year. The Centibots program will produce robots that can be used by the military and first responders for surveillance and search and rescue missions. Researchers on the Babylon project are working on language translation software for handheld devices that can be used by the military abroad and domestic emergency personnel.

Elsewhere, officials in the R&D division of the Homeland Security Department will likely award a contract for

development of the next generation of portable biological and chemical detectors. They will also begin evaluating proposals for radiation detectors this year.

As with any new technology, success in the laboratory does not always extend to the field. For example, biometrics — which was hyped early on as useful for applications such as securing government computer networks or identifying terrorists — has yet to live up to expectations.

"There's been a lot of hope that biometrics would be some sort of silver bullet for these homeland security and police issues," said Jonathan Eunice, principal analyst and IT adviser for Illuminata Inc., a research firm based in Nashua, N.H. "The fact is most of them have failed."

Although the government may have more to do to push developments in biometrics, other major priorities this year include communications, search and rescue, and border control.

Imagine sending a swarm of robots, each the size of a toy truck, into an abandoned building in Iraq that's suspected of being a hiding place for Saddam Hussein loyalists. Or perhaps it's an apartment building that's been destroyed by a bomb and the robots' job is to look for survivors.

Those might sound like scenes from the latest Hollywood sci-fi thriller, but DARPA is close to the end of an 18-month, $2.2 million project called Software for Distributed Robotics that involves building those kinds of devices. The project has produced teams of 50-pound and 25-pound robots, called Centibots, that could help in search and rescue missions or detect hiding enemies.

The team developing the Centibots includes SRI International in Menlo Park, Calif.; ActivMedia Robotics LLC in Amherst, N.H.; the University of Washington; and Stanford University. Each is working independently on a particular part of the program.

Developers will demonstrate 100 of the Centibots to DARPA officials early this year in different scenarios. In one search and rescue scenario, a team of Centibots will be sent into a building to produce a map of its layout that will then be sent to a second team of Centibots that will go in to look for a particular object based on that map. The robots will also position themselves throughout the area so they can sense any intruders. Another situation sets up the machines to identify a chemical or biological hazard in a building.

"The [robots] are each individually autonomous, and further, they can act together in a team so they can make trade-offs, exchange information and help each other," said Charlie Ortiz, program manager in SRI's Artificial Intelligence Center. "That's the real innovation here."

David Bolka is on a mission this year to find the next generation of chemical and biological weapons detectors. As director of the Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency (HSARPA), Bolka must comb the private sector for innovations that can help the department combat terrorism.

The agency is looking at 125 proposals for chemical and biological detection devices and is expected to start contract negotiations soon. The goal for these detectors is to augment BioWatch, an early warning system that can quickly detect biological materials in the air. The department is testing BioWatch in 30 cities.

"Our research announcement is for the next-generation [chemical and biological] detectors so that we can increase the coverage, decrease the time it takes to make a detection and also to decrease the cost of doing so," Bolka said.

Agency officials are also looking for the next generation of radiation detectors. HSARPA officials have several test portals of detectors at U.S. borders. Officials will also work this year on organizing maritime traffic information available to the U.S. Coast Guard in southern Florida to establish an analysis system for quick response measures.

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, government officials have grown increasingly concerned about the contents of cargo containers being shipped daily into the United States. CACI International Inc., an Arlington, Va.-based systems integrator, is addressing that concern by developing a system to monitor the contents of the containers using ultra-wideband data signals.

CACI's system consists of fist-sized transmitters that would be placed inside shipping containers before they are sealed. The devices sense temperature, humidity, pressure and tampering and emit data from the containers via ultra-wideband signals. The signals are received by satellite and sent to a ground station for interpretation. Officials can identify and locate suspicious containers using the signals.

"You can isolate those containers that are questionable rather than arbitrarily looking at one in 50," said Jeff Renard, vice president of CACI's Logistics Support Division. "This has the opportunity to not hinder the speed of commerce."

Ultra-wideband is well suited to this application because the signals can be transmitted from inside a sealed container without modifying the container, according to company officials.

CACI had been working on ultra-wideband technology since 2001 and saw it as an application for warehouse monitoring. But company officials quickly changed gears after the terrorist attacks and started work on technology that could help the government with border control.

The company has a patent pending on the transmitters, and officials are also working on a deal with supply chain vendors and government agencies to develop a device that can be integrated for certain sensors, such as temperature, humidity and light. Renard said it was too early to name the vendors or the government agencies.

DARPA's Babylon project, recently renamed Compact Aids for Speech Translation, is entering its evaluations phase. When the project concludes in September, two people speaking different languages will be able to communicate in real time using the handheld device to translate.

DARPA is particularly interested in providing the devices to soldiers and medical personnel overseas. Carnegie Mellon University, IBM Corp., HRL Laboratories LLC, BBN Technologies and SRI are all working on the project.

Researchers have also talked with state and local government officials, including representatives of the Phoenix Fire Department, about using the devices. Emergency dispatchers often receive calls from people speaking various languages, and automated translation capabilities could expedite responses. Likewise, firefighters are interested in using the devices to communicate with people at the scene of an emergency.

The first phase of the project produced the Phraselator, a personal digital assistant that holds several thousand English phrases translated into languages including Arabic, Thai and Chinese. A small group of military personnel in Afghanistan and Iraq is using the device.

The second phase produced bilingual, phrase-based translation software that allows an English speaker to have a two-way conversation in Pashto, one of the main languages in Afghanistan, based on a set of predetermined phrases. The product is being tested by U.S. military forces in Kandahar, Afghanistan, and developers are waiting for feedback.

The third generation, in development now and so far the most challenging, seeks to enable two-way, spontaneous translation, not based on a set of phrases.

"We have to do very creative kinds of things and tackle different problems that are posed in other languages," said Kristin Precoda, director of SRI's Speech Technology and Research Laboratory.

The biggest challenge for the team in the next year is fine-tuning the technology to recognize the ways people speak.

"It's amazing how many different sentences, all meaning the same thing, that people can say," said Alan Black, associate research professor in the Language Technologies Institute at Carnegie Mellon. "When you give it to somebody, it may not recognize anything they say."

Finding solutions to these kinds of problems is the essence of developing new technologies.

Who's Fed 100-worthy?

Nominations are now open for the 2015 Federal 100 awards. Get the details and submit your picks!

Featured

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above