Tiny UCLA Sensors Could Provide Big Help for U.S. Military


Tiny UCLA Sensors Could Provide Big Help for U.S. Military

Tracking device: Computer chip can detect movement of weaponry within 100 feet.


Staff Reporter

Imagine thousands of tiny wireless sensors falling from the sky so many dispersed over such a wide area that not all would be destroyed by the crunch of shoes or vehicles traveling over the terrain. Imagine, too, that they would be able to pick up movements of weaponry or heavy metal objects within 100 feet of their location, and then relay the information to command centers.

It’s still science fiction, but researchers at UCLA are about to complete tests of these sensors for use by the military.

The project is being funded by a three-year $2.4 million grant awarded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon’s research and development arm. If successful, production could begin as early as next summer.

“This could play an important role in rooting out terrorists,” said Jack Judy, an assistant professor of electrical engineering at UCLA and head of the project’s research. “If you have terrorists hiding out in remote regions of Afghanistan or similar countries these sensors could aid in monitoring.”

The sensors, eight of which could fit on the face of a dime, can detect a disruption in the earth’s magnetic field. Circuits transfer the information to computers in a control center. Satellites would then be used for more detailed information once the sensors identify movement in a particular area.

Among the most immediate potential applications: Military personnel presumably could detect terrorists hiding in tunnels as deep as 100 feet underground, as long as the earth does not contain iron-laden rocks.

The components from UCLA are integrated into a battery-powered computer chip, with the circuits developed by a Cambridge, Mass. division of Analog Devices Inc. under a $150,000 subcontract.

Although no price tag has been placed on the micro electro-mechanical systems, Judy estimated that they could cost $50 each in orders of 10,000 to 100,000.

“They are useful in any kind of war not just the war against terrorism,” said Philip Coyle, a senior fellow with the Center for Defense Information, a Washington researching and planning group. “But in a war against terrorism, you’re talking about a widely dispersed enemy who may be well-hidden. In Afghanistan, we didn’t know where to look first.”

The devices are made with some of the same technologies used to create automotive accelerometers, which detect the sudden stop of a vehicle that triggers the deployment of air bags.

Larger magnetometers, requiring a lot more power, already are in use by the military to detect submarines. But their size and power consumption is deemed not practical for battlefield use.

“They need to be small so they can be covert and rugged to survive the fall to earth,” said Judy. “This sensor is ideal for wide area distribution. If you have enough of them (the enemy) will never find all of them.”

Jan Walker, a DARPA spokeswoman, added that, “There are places where having something smaller allows more options for designing military systems.”

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