Electronic Design

For Government: Will It Be A Blessing Or A Bane?

Electronics will underpin future security and military programs.

Like it or not, the very electronics technology that will improve every facet of our lives and let us have tons of fun will also be used by the government—for better or for worse? It's too soon to tell. Powerful surveillance and law-enforcement personnel armed with the latest high-tech gear will mean less crime. But these enhanced capabilities will make government more pervasive and invasive. Civil libertarians are already on guard as they see the Orwellian vision of "Big Brother" taking shape.

Even now, in many U.S. and overseas cities, law-enforcement authorities have mounted cameras on street poles to monitor crowds. Will cameras in the workplace come next? That's not likely as such usage isn't apt to pass the constitutional challenges that would result. The technology even exists to identify individuals thermographically, while they enjoy the comforts of life within the sanctity of their own homes. This sort of advanced thermographic imaging has proven its mettle in many military applications and is rapidly advancing in capability. Only recent constitutional court challenges have kept the technology from further eroding individual privacy rights.

The Global Positioning System (GPS) technology now under development to locate wandering and missing persons within a prescribed geographical area can also be used by the criminal justice system to track prisoners under house arrest or on parole. In fact, law-enforcement personnel could surreptitiously plant devices on people under investigation or observation. Sensors have become so advanced that many arrays of them can be deployed anywhere, en masse, for pinpointing anyone, any time, any place. How security can be improved while preserving an individual's rights to privacy will be sorely tested as technology and its applications march forward.

For secure entry to sensitive locations, it's no longer sufficient to present a valid ID, step through a metal and chemical detector and an X-ray screener, and be manually searched. New developments in biometrics, like facial recognition, palmprint and thumbprint ID, and ocular identification, will make the former steps obsolete for access control.

Emerging lab-on-a-chip devices will have a myriad of medical applications (see "For People," p. 163). But they also are being tested for security applications. For instance, the government is now interested in securing access to critical places by instantly identifying individuals from their genetic makeup.

Even more important is protection from biochemical threats. A new generation of handheld detectors is emerging based on the rapidly advancing field of biosensors. These sensors detect dangerous biochemical toxins within seconds, which is fast enough to provide warnings and permit effective follow-up actions. Even better handheld detection systems based on microspectrometry also are on their way over the next couple of years.

Expect the military to move from smart weapons to nothing short of brilliant weapons. Yesterday's smart weapons are being enhanced with the latest electronics and optical technology to make them more accurate and deadlier armaments. Such weapons will make even the most unskilled soldier a formidable opponent in war. Newer weapons and those still on the drawing board range from unmanned planes bristling with radar and all kinds of sensors for mapping many terrains and gathering intelligence on enemy formations to cruise missiles that can loiter overhead for hours before deciding on the best moment to strike.

Future soldiers will be equipped with GPS receivers and satellite gear that allow them to pinpoint every member of friendly troop locations. Third-generation night-vision systems currently under development will let soldiers see opponents that are hundreds of yards away, even through dense fog and such solid obstructions as walls and buttresses.

Detecting and deactivating landmines is one of the most dangerous, difficult, and pressing jobs to be tackled worldwide. Millions of land mines lay buried everywhere where armed conflicts have transpired or are still under way. These surreptitious weapons have caused untold death and suffering to the inhabitants of countless countries. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is exploring an idea to use relatively inexpensive sensor modules. These consist of nano devices that can be assembled into loops, with their common sensors pointing toward a gradient below the surface. The sensors would be arranged in a circular fashion next to each other and programmed to sense at a specific angle, downward from the ground, to detect metallic objects like mines. A microprocessor would correlate all of their outputs for a precise fix on a mine's location.

During the recent war in Afghanistan, the U.S. military field-tested the latest in personal water "disinfection" devices for use by soldiers. The pen-like units are the size of a Magic Marker, weigh only four ounces, and can treat one liter of water for less than 1/100th the cost of bottled water. Each battery-operated unit contains a MEMS micropump and water-contaminant sensors, as well as filters. Expect to see other such convenience items in the future, providing soldiers with everything necessary for combat.

Aside from weaponry, the military implements electronics technology to create virtual battlefields for training personnel. Sophisticated computer modeling and graphics, faster microprocessor speeds, and advances in artificial intelligence are enabling a new era of simulation technology that can create realistic conditions without soldiers leaving their computer seats. The U.S. now spends $4 billion a year on simulation and training equipment alone, and it will continue to do so. Today's military personnel are more apt to be trained for any battle in a totally computer-simulated environment before it actually happens. Hollywood special-effects experts are working with researchers to create next-generation military trainers for the U.S. Army. These immersive virtual-reality systems will give the effect of soldiers interacting with graphical lifelike enemies. High-tech toys like Sony's Playstation2 and Microsoft's Xbox are being adapted for distributed and networked military gaming.

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Who knows? Perhaps combatants will wage future battles in their own comfortable settings, on computers, much like chess games are played, before a single shot is ever fired. Humankind can certainly hope so.

For military command and control, information technology is radically shortening the time needed to react to an event. The future will bring more combined data from various sensors and surveillance systems, and quicker interpretations of that data with faster computers. This means speedier decisions and reactions, like attacking, but how much faster? It will take just minutes to accomplish what used to require days.

One scenario gaining favor is known as "sensor dust." In this setting, thousands upon thousands of microsensors—the size of dust-like particles, each with its own transmitter—would be sprinkled all over a certain area to collect intelligence and biological data. Their outputs would be fed wirelessly to a central computer that would rapidly crunch, analyze, and act on the data in near real-time conditions. Incredibly, such a system could become reality within only three to five years.

To rapidly and effectively treat wounded soldiers on the battlefield, the military is looking to the emerging field of telemedicine. Battlefield casualties would be transported quickly to a field hospital equipped with a telemedical station. There, trained medical personnel would examine the soldier and transmit images and vital-sign information, in real time, over a telemetry link to a physician located in a hospital or office anywhere in the world. Then the doctor would diagnose the patient and instruct the medical personnel on-site with the patient about treatment options. Interest-ingly, the concept of telemedicine was born during the U.S. space-exploration programs back in the 1960s to medically treat astronauts who were in outer space.

Speaking of outer space, advances in optics and electronics will expand exploration. Starting this year, DARPA has initiated a program to develop the Space Surveillance Telescope. This advanced ground-based optical system, to be fabricated and tested by 2004, will enable the detection of faint objects in space, while providing rapid wide-area search capability. It will leverage recent advances in curved focal-plane-array technology and large lightweight optics. The SST will have a large aperture that provides detection sensitivity with a low-aberration wide field-of-view. This will allow quick high-sensitivity detection of small space objects such as asteroids. It could also be used for defense-related military applications, like detecting warheads and missiles in outer space.

Clearly, electronics will form the underpinning of the government's future security and military programs. It's imperative that the government implement this powerful technology judiciously, so as not to abuse the rights of individuals. This double-edged sword must be handled with care.

Click here for several examples of the special photos in this picture album.

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