2005: Technology got smarter, faster

From microprocessors to spam filters, biometrics and wireless networks, technological advancements this year will help government employees and warfighters perform their tasks with more ease and efficiency. Here are some highlights.

PCs go double time

Ever since PCs became powerful enough to earn a spot in the workplace, technology managers have grown accustomed to periodic performance boosts that let them deploy larger, more complex software applications at lower prices. As microprocessor technology has evolved, traditional ways of boosting performance have become less effective and new ones must be developed.

The introduction this year of dual-core chips, which have two processors on a single chip, promises to keep the performance boosts coming.

As a result, government users expect to be able to run sophisticated applications, such as image analysis or geographic information systems, on their desktop PCs as easily as they operate word processing or e-mail applications.

Feds fortify U.S. passport

The U.S. passport is the most valued travel and identity document in the world. The Homeland Security and State departments want to make it the most fraud-resistant one, too.

Following DHS requirements, State officials are releasing the first completely redesigned passport in more than a decade. The new passport will include physical and electronic safeguards to stymie tampering or use by impostors. The passport will also have a digital photo printed on the first page, replacing laminated paper photos on the inside front cover of older passports.

A small symbol on the new passport's front cover and a tiny bump in the upper left corner of its rear page are the only indicators that the passport contains a radio frequency identification chip with biographical data and a digital photo.

FEMA tests digital alert system

In an attempt to expand the nation's warning system, the Federal Emergency Management Agency tested digital technology that can transmit text, voice and video messages simultaneously to wireless devices, radios, televisions and the Internet.

In February, FEMA successfully transmitted a text message to participating cellular, TV, Internet and radio providers. FEMA broadcast a voice message of unlimited length in March and tested video streaming in April.

3 ways to authenticate

Increased ease of use, high throughput, and heightened accuracy and security of data are three tenets of the booming biometrics industry, experts say. Those factors are pushing technological advances in biometric authentication devices, which scrutinize characteristics of the human body to prove that people are who they say they are.

Three new technologies take biometrics in new directions — and in one case, into computers.

Until now, iris-recognition devices have required subjects to stop and face a reader that scans their eyes from a short distance. Sarnoff recently unveiled a prototype system that allows as many as 20 people a minute to walk through a portal without stopping.

Fingerprints are the other gold standard of biometrics. Fujitsu introduced a twist on the popular fingerprint reader in June: a device that reads the pattern of veins in a person's palm.

Phoenix Technologies has taken the idea one step further by creating a biometric style for computers and other hardware. To fight spoofing, phishing and unauthorized physical access to their customers' networks, Phoenix has introduced new software that embeds a security system beneath the operating system to identify devices, not just users.

New type of spam filter

Kevin Stine, the Food and Drug Administration's chief information security officer, knew he had to do something about the agency's spam problem. Out of 150,000 daily inbound e-mails, 40,000 were spam.

The FDA's technology employees spent as much as 10 percent of their time weeding out unsolicited commercial e-mail messages, which consumed valuable resources, he said.

Unfortunately, the filters that examined e-mail messages for keywords caught not only real spam but also corralled thousands of genuine messages, inconveniencing the FDA's 12,000 users, Stine said.

Agency officials turned to IronPort Systems, which offers a line of antispam appliances that block unwanted messages while letting in legitimate e-mail. IronPort uses a behavioral model of filtering, which grants or blocks access to its customers' networks based on e-mail senders' behavior instead of their messages' content.

Technology can turn soldiers into superheroes

The way the U.S. military fights today, information is as important as tanks, ships and aircraft. The Pentagon's strategy requires that data be posted to networks in seconds so troops and analysts can assess it and take action within minutes.

That new warfighting dynamic requires advanced sensing, communications and security technologies, which the military's research laboratories often develop.

For example, the Army Battle Command Battle Laboratory at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., considers Subterranean Target Identification technology a capability that could help warfighters and analysts locate ammunition bunkers and track weapons of mass destruction in the war on terrorism. Sensing and data-processing technology developed by Silicon Graphics Inc. uses sound, infrared and other wave-producing technologies and seismic sensors to create visual models of underground objects.

The military also needs seamless communications, and the Office of Naval Research thinks All-Digital Receiver technology can help. The superconducting microelectronics technology developed by Hypres handles direct digital reception. It eliminates the conversion of radio frequency to an intermediate frequency by digitizing signals at the antenna.

Beach: Ammunition redux

When Defense Department officials told Glenn Beach they wanted him to develop a system in 90 days that would sort reusable ammunition in Kuwait to support troops in Iraq, he stepped up to the challenge. But when the time frame changed to 60 days, he was sweating bullets.

Beach, program director at Cybernet Systems, and his co-workers used computer vision technology to create a real-time, small-arms ammunition inspection system. It automates what had been a manual process of sifting through found and unspent ammunition for usable bullets. The inspection equipment matches ammunition against previously recorded images of bullet colors, shapes and printed characters, much like how fingerprint-matching systems search for identical ridges. The device supplements ammunition production, which was at maximum capacity.

Using cameras to examine bullets is not new, but the resolution capability of the Cybernet device is. The machine's four cameras detect minute defects, preventing faulty ammunition from reaching U.S. soldiers.

City of Ripon goes wireless

A Northern California city deployed a municipal wireless network earlier this year to enable secure, high-speed voice and data communications among first responders and other city employees. The same network will support live streaming of surveillance video and monitoring of industrial computer systems.

Several cities have equipped their emergency responders with Motorola's IP-based, peer-to-peer communications technology. But Ripon city officials are taking it further, said Rick Rotondo, marketing director of Motorola's Mesh Networks Products Group.

Mesh networks are designed to be multihop systems in which any member device can transmit packets via the network. In Ripon, "we're finally starting to see people using the full potential of the system," Rotondo said.

Ripon public works officials are planning to use the mesh network to monitor data from supervisory control and data acquisition systems, which collect data from sensors and machines and transmit them to a central computer.

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