DARPA wants stealthy 3D building-interior mapping kit

Published 2 April 2009

SWAT teams, special forces units, and first responders often are called upon to storm buildings in which terrorists hide; would it not be better if these units had up-to-date, accurate pictures of the insides of the structures they are about to storm? DARPA thinks it is a good idea

The Pentagon is seeking a sensor systems which would be able to peer through concrete walls to produce a complete internal picture of a building. The U.S. military would use such kit for “overseas urban building interior awareness.” The new plans are known as “Comprehensive Interior Reconnaissance,” and come from — where else? — DARPA (the “inquiring minds want to know” unit), whose researchers, in Lewis Page’s words, believe it is better to invent a head-mounted multispectral imaging device than curse the darkness. The Pentagon spec sheet notes:

As overseas military and peace-keeping operations have expanded in urban environments, our adversaries have adopted asymmetric strategies such as hiding in and operating out of civilian buildings … it is imperative that we develop technologies to allow U.S. Forces to confidently maneuver within urban interiors whether above or below ground …

Once specific buildings have been identified as deserving closer scrutiny, our forces [will] concentrate specific resources on these buildings to support tactical planning. Deployed sensors can spend more time providing detailed situational awareness of a single building, determining its floor plan, underground extent, and underground ingress and egress …

Additional sensors can be carried by blue forces as they enter the structure to verify or refine the interior situational awareness and improve our forces maneuverability.

Specifically, DARPA researchers think that operational systems would be deployed in vehicles and aircraft, or perhaps placed near a building of interest by U.S. personnel. The latter static jobs should be no bigger than backpack sized, and “compatible with clandestine operations.”

The combined suite of equipment should be able to produce complete floor plans of a ten story building plus two-story basement, with walls and stairwells located to within one meter. Any hidden tunnels should be identified, and any access to connecting buildings. The scanners should be able to see through concrete structural walls complete with rebar, and yet still detect internal stud-wall partitions.

All this should be achieved without any U.S. personnel needing to get within ten meters of the building, and only brief excursions inside twenty meters: and the machinery should have the complete building map produced within three days. Page writes that you should not be coming to DARPA with any “external through-the-wall radar solutions” as these are already being handled under another program.

Just how the miracle-mapper gear should work is up to the proposer. DARPA, however, seem to be hinting at clever kit of some kind hooked up outside the building to water mains, power lines, sewer connections, or the ground in which it stands. DARPA asserts that:

  • Stimulus response of building infrastructure contains tactically useful information on the interior structure. Infrastructure includes, but is not limited to, the structural, electrical, plumbing, and ventilation systems.
  • Such information may be acquired through access to the exterior of buildings that may include direct contact with an exterior umbilical, but does not require contact or deployments within the building.
  • Approaches to acquiring such information may require active as well as passive sensing.

It looks as though mysterious echoes or signals sent through wiring, plumbing, and building structure are expected to do the job. After three days of clandestine-ops imagery has been gathered on a building of interest, a complete 3D interior map will be generated.

This should mean that when the assault team blows in the doors, there will be much less chance of blunders such as getting lost, charging violently into cupboards, etc. — and much less chance of the building’s denizens escaping through their prepared bolthole into next door’s basement.

Page says that Americans will no doubt find it reassuring that this technology is only to be used “overseas,” but the feeling here is that it will not be long before first responders show interest in it.