Seeing through concrete, clearly

Published 10 April 2009

Insurgents and terrorists fight from within civilian structures, making it difficult for soldiers and first responders to respond without injuring many civilians; DARPA wants a solution which would allow soldiers to look through concrete walls and give them a detailed picture of a building’s interior — right down to the fixtures

Hiding and fighting from within civilian structures gives insurgents an edge. The U.S. military wants to negate this home field advantage with technology that would allow soldiers to look through concrete walls and give them a detailed picture of a building’s interior — right down to the fixtures. DARPA — who else? — has asked companies to propose a suite of multiple sensing technologies that could, upon development, deliver “complete situational awareness” above and below ground that would “reverse the adversaries’ advantage of urban familiarity.”

CNet’s Mark Rutherford writes that the Comprehensive Interior Reconnaissance program sponsored by DARPA describes a scenario in which an area would be cordoned off, and specific buildings identified as deserving closer scrutiny. In addition to aiding in hostage rescues and other urban combat operations, this “no-knock” technology could have some “hearts and minds” collateral benefits, as it could mean fewer doors kicked in.

An ubervision system would be brought in to scan and kick out floor plans on up to a 10-story building, including basements and the structural and infrastructure systems such as electrical, plumbing, and ventilation; all accurate to within one yard. Sensing may be accomplished through passive or active means, as long as it’s from outside the building or through an “exterior umbilical,” according to the DARPA announcement. This could be done from a passing vehicle, an aircraft, or from a clandestine operation’s compatible backpack-size unit. The crown jewel for special ops would be a “head-mounted multispectral imaging device.”

A combination of optical and microwave satellite sensors have reportedly been used to successfully map subsurface archaeological sites, but there’s no hint yet on how this ability will be brought down to earth . External, through-the-wall radar is already in the works at DARPA, so companies are encouraged to look elsewhere for solutions.

The DARPA solicitation carefully specifies that this is intended for “overseas urban building interior awareness,” but it is not hard to imagine the technology being adapted to drive-by inspections by your local building department. Time to legalize that “granny” unit.