Tag Archives: darpa

Motorola Patents E-Tattoo That Can Read Your Thoughts

Imagine trying to patent the smartphone, or for that matter, the tattoo. Any company that could swing that, could probably also patent the fork and knife.

Incredibly, a new application from Google-owned Motorola Mobility seeks a patent not for any particular utensil, but rather, for setting the table.

In other words, if you have an electronic smart tattoo, and want it to speak to your mobile communications device, you may soon be able to do it in spades, but you will have to do it Google style.

But hold on for a minute, as there is a bit more to the whole concept than might first appear.

The tattoo they have in mind is actually one that will be emblazoned over your vocal cords to intercept subtle voice commands, perhaps even subvocal commands, or even the fully internal whisperings that fail to pluck the vocal cords when not given full cerebral approval.

One might even conclude that they are not just patenting device communications from a patch of smartskin, but communications from your soul.

Or maybe not. It has been known for decades that when you speak to yourself in your inner voice, your brain still sends neural spike volleys to your vocal apparatus, in a similar fashion to when you actually speak aloud.

The main difference between the two, is that the nervous action driving covert speech as it is called, is subthreshold, and does not generate the full muscle contraction.

The same might also be said for imagining throwing a baseball, it is probably not possible to even do so without simultaneously calling up and at least partially launching unamplified motor programs.

Stated another way, your thoughts are your motor intentions, only they are not always recognizable as such if they are sufficiently abstracted.

The actual patent speaks of picking up an “auditory signal” from the tattoo, and converting it into a digital signal. The signals from the brain, carried by spikes on the hundreds of laryngeal nerve fibers (and other nerves modulating the vocal tract), are already digital.

They bear no real resemblance to an auditory signal at this point. After transformation in the numerous muscles that control the speech organs, there is still no single signal that could be sent to a transducer to generate sound recognizable as speech.

Looking at an image of a smart tattoo pioneered by John Roger’s Illinois-based research lab, there seems to be all kinds of sensor goodies which can be built in to pick up various biologics.

I don’t know if the strain gauges could pick up an actual speech signal in the same way that a conventional microphone could, but they would certainly generate useful information.

The built-in EMG and ECG electrodes would not pick up individual spikes so to speak, but could certainly generate electrical records of muscle activity, and perhaps eventually compound nerve potentials.

Rogers helped to form a company, MC10, that hoped to commercialize this technology and although he indicated that he was not involved in these recent ventures, they have joint development efforts with Motorola Mobility.

There is already a device known as a throat microphone that has been used to record an auditory signal in noisy conditions like, for example, the cockpit of a jet fighter. Developed along with the first pressure suit back in 1934, it used a direct contact microphone to pick up sound waves traveling through solid objects such as the throat wall.

Later so-called throat microphones, such as the Xbox 360 accessory, only use an open-air microphone.

They do not really exclude background noise, nor have the ability to pick up unvoiced signals.

What got some folks attention recently, namely those over at Patently Apple, was a few peculiar statements in the patent regarding the recording of galvanic skin responses.

These guys first heard about the e-skin tattoo from Regina Dugan, the former DARPA head who is now in charge of advanced research at Motorola.

Their article notes that the e-tattoo would provide a nice way to do authentication, but the seemingly out of place inclusion of the lie detection talk certainly raises some questions.

Covert voice activation of your device in a crowd would definitely be a nice feature. Instead of actually speaking to Siri or Google Now, you could merely think your voice command.

Detecting stress and other emotion could have some applicability too, although who else really needs to know if you have a lump in your throat?

Perhaps I have not read that many patents recently, but there certainly did seem to be an excess of wording, and scope. Every wireless communications protocol I am familiar with was included in some form, somewhere.

Not only were there definitions for words like “a” and “an,” but also actual percentages associated with a list of words like “about,” “approximately”, “essentially”, and “substantially”.

Clearly this is one among several recent patents that we all may want to keep an eye on.

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The War on Sleep


The War on Sleep

There’s a military arms race to build soldiers who fight without fatigue.

By William Saletan.

All over the world, scientists are experimenting on soldiers to keep them awake beyond the limits of normal endurance. Researchers are engineering, and militaries are deploying, chemically enhanced troops. Of all the superpowers we’ve imagined, the one that has turned out to be most attainable—so attainable we’re already using it—is the ability to go without sleep.

Much of this research, which focuses on a drug called modafinil, is openly sponsored and supervised by military agencies. The United States leads the pack, conducting experiments through its Air Force Research Laboratory, Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory, Army Medical Research and Materiel Command, Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, and Special Operations Command Biomedical Initiative Steering Committee. Other countries’ armed forces are studying the same drug: Defense Research and Development Canada, China’s Second Military Medical University, the Netherlands Ministry of Defense, South Korea’s Air Force Academy, Taiwan’s National Defense Medical Center, and the Bioengineering Laboratory of Singapore’s Defense Medical and Environmental Research Institute. India is investigating modafinil through its Institute of Aerospace Medicine and Defence Institute of Physiology and Allied Sciences. France’s research program includes its Ministry of Defense, Military Health Service Research Center, and Institute of Aerospace Medicine. Many of the supervising agencies sound Orwellian: Human Effectiveness Directorate, Fatigue Countermeasures Branch, Département des Facteurs Humain. This, mind you, is just the published research. God knows what’s going on in secret.

The publicly reported studies have tested modafinil in Black Hawk helicopter pilots, F-117 fighter pilots, French paratroopers, and Canadian reservists, among others. They’ve simulated A-6 Intruder bombing missions, AWACS flights, and French Navy patrols. In nearly every trial, modafinil has extended the ability to function without sleep. And we’re already using it in the field. The United States has given modafinil to Air Force personnel since the 2003 Iraq invasion. By 2004, the British Ministry of Defense had bought 24,000 tablets. By 2007, France was routinely supplying it to fighter pilots.

Why has functioning without sleep, unlike other fantasized human enhancements, become real? Because the immediate goal is modestly defined, demonstrably achievable, and easy to measure in experiments. We don’t have to keep you awake forever. We just have to compensate, partially and temporarily, for the cognitive impairment caused by your lack of sleep. In a way, we aren’t enhancing your performance. We’re just raising it back to your normal level—the level at which you function when you’re wide awake. The published experimental reports propose to “sustain,” “maintain,” or “restore” what they call “baseline,” or “pre-deprivation” performance. They aim to “attenuate,” “alleviate,” or “reverse” the “deficits,” “decrements,” and “degradations” caused by sleep deprivation. They speak of modafinil as a “countermeasure” to the “negative effects” of long shifts.
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Why are armed forces leading this research? Because they feel the greatest urgency. For an airline or freight company, failure to complete a flight means financial losses. For an air force, it means casualties. In civilian life, you can schedule reliable overnight rest or naps. In war, you can’t. Maybe you’re alone in a cockpit. Maybe you’re on a 12-hour mission requiring constant vigilance. Nobody’s around to take the next shift. Even if somebody were, how are you supposed to sleep in the chaos of combat?

Soldiers have been using stimulants forever. The British downed tea. The Prussians tried cocaine. Nearly every army has leaned on coffee or tobacco. In World War II, both sides took amphetamines. The U.S. military officially approved amphetamines in 1960. Since then, we’ve employed them in Vietnam, Panama, Libya, and during the first Gulf War. Today, all four branches of the U.S. armed forces authorize the use of dextroamphetamine under specific conditions. The Army rations caffeine gum, and every survey suggests that most U.S. aircrews, when in action, use stimulants.

Against this background, modafinil represents a refinement, not an amplification. In 1989, at a defense conference in Europe, a French scientist proposed it for military use. Researchers from the U.S. Air Force Human Systems Division took note and recommended further experiments, based not on the drug’s power but on its precision. Compared with amphetamines and caffeine, modafinil has shown less addictiveness, less cardiovascular stimulation, and less interference with scheduled sleep. Military-sponsored studies have focused less on demonstrating modafinil’s efficacy than on narrowing the effective dose and averting side effects.

In their papers, these researchers never talk about superhuman warriors. They stress a conventional objective: saving lives. They point to fatal accidents and mission failures, including friendly fire incidents, caused by sleep deprivation. Exhaustion kills.

That’s where the logic of enhancement begins. What used to be normal—needing eight hours of sleep each night—is now understood as a fatal flaw. An Israeli report, “Psychostimulants and Military Operations,” examines this “human-machine conflict,” lamenting, “Although an aircraft can mechanically function effectively throughout long hours, pilots cannot.” Canadian defense scientists also highlight this “discrepancy between human need and technological capability.” A U.S. Air Force document warns of disastrous “sleep attacks”—exhausted personnel nodding off on the job. We are the defect. We must be cured.

The cure began with stimulants. Then it expanded to combinations: hypnotics to induce sufficient sleep before your mission (currently approved and administered by all branches of the U.S. armed services), followed by stimulants to switch you back on. The initial idea was to keep you awake for a few extra hours. But the experiments have grown more ambitious, testing drugs for 40, 60, or even 90 hours without sleep. In journal articles, scientists have speculated that with modafinil, troops might function for weeks on just four hours of sleep a night.

Next comes the doping of fully rested troops. “Even in situations where soldiers do receive enough sleep,” says a 2010 report from the U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory, “they may not be able to maintain appropriate levels of vigilance during long periods of overnight duty without some form of assistance.” This drug treatment can be justified as therapeutic, according to the army lab, since combat is an inherently “abnormal environment,” imposing “extreme conditions” that “degrade optimum duty performance” and “increase soldier risk.” The report points out that “the military has long facilitated (indeed, mandated) pharmaceuticals such as immunizations and prophylaxis in healthy soldier populations where the threat is clearly identified, the risk is unacceptable, the science is sound, the drugs are safe, and the fighting force must be protected and sustained. In the case of cognitive enhancement, for example, one may characterize the threat as an intrinsic agent such as fatigue from necessary sustained combat operations.”

Once we head down this road, there’s no turning back. With multiple countries investigating military modafinil, staying awake becomes an arms race. A report by the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory explains why: “Forcing our enemies to perform continuously without the benefit of sufficient daily sleep is a very effective weapon.” To win this war of exhaustion, we must “manage fatigue among ourselves.” We must drug our troops to outlast yours. You, in turn, must drug your troops to keep up. On the battlefield of the future, there is no sleep but death.

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DARPA ‘Cheetah’ Robot Can Run Faster Than You

DARPA ‘Cheetah’ Robot Can Run Faster Than You

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(EndPlay Staff Reports) – Looking like a four-legged “Star Wars” creature, the Pentagon’s “Cheetah” robot can gallop up to 18 mph, a land speed record for legged robots.

The robot is the product of the Defense Department’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

“The robot’s movements are patterned after those of fast-running animals in nature,” stated a news release on DARPA’s website . “The robot increases its stride and running speed by flexing and un-flexing its back on each step, much as an actual cheetah does.”

Powered by an off-board hydraulic pump, the robot ran on a laboratory treadmill in a demonstration. A boom-like device keeps it running in the center of the treadmill.

The military plans to test a free-running prototype later this year.

The robot’s high speed of 18 mph might not sound all that impressive, but it is nearly five mph faster than the previous record of 13.1 mph, set in 1989. Also, 18 mph is much faster than the average human jogger, according to Wired.com .

And Usain Bolt, the human world-record holder, was clocked at 28 mph during the 100-meter sprint in 2009.

Boston Dynamics, the company behind Cheetah would like the robot to sprint as fast as 60 mph or 70 mph – the speed of a real cheetah, according to Wired.com.

The website reported that DARPA has not yet revealed what the robot will be used for. Along with its eventual high speeds, the device could be designed so it can zigzag to chase and evade. It could be used for emergency response, firefighting, advanced agriculture and vehicular travel.


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Dream warriors? U.S. military to research ‘battlefield illusions’ to baffle enemies

Dream warriors? U.S. military to research ‘battlefield illusions’ to baffle enemies

By Rob Waugh

The American military’s technology research division Darpa is to investigate hi tech ‘battlefield illusions’ designed to baffle enemy troops, according to budget figures announced this week.

The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency is investing $4 million in the project, which includes research into causing ‘auditory and visual’ hallucinations in enemy troops.

The technologies could be similar to current measures designed to confuse radar systems, but applied to human beings.

The research division Darpa aims to create ‘battlefield illusions’ to baffle enemies – and is investing $4 million in the technology

The ‘illusions’ would likely use optical technology, and will be built to be mounted on vehicles.

‘The current operational art of human-sensory battlefield deception is largely an ad-hoc practice,’ says the agency.

The agency aims to investigate ‘how humans use their brains to process sensory inputs,’ to create technologies that will provide a tactical advantage on the battlefield.

Darpa says it aims to, ‘Demonstrate and assess the operational effectiveness of advanced human-deceptive technologies on military ground, sea, and airborne systems,’ according to the report in Wired.

Wired magazine’s Noah Schachtman says, ‘This is not the first time that military researchers have tried to confuse foes with sights or sounds that aren’t really there.’
Optical illusion: Darpa says it aims to, ‘Demonstrate and assess the operational effectiveness of advanced human-deceptive technologies on military ground, sea, and airborne systems’

Optical illusion: Darpa says it aims to, ‘Demonstrate and assess the operational effectiveness of advanced human-deceptive technologies on military ground, sea, and airborne systems’

‘The defense contractor BAE Systems recently developed an ‘invisibility cloak’ which it says can hide vehicles’ infrared signature,’ says Schachtman.

‘In the early years of the war on terror, many in the defense tech community floated the idea of a ‘Voice off God’ weapon. The idea was to use directed sound waves to convince would-be jihadis that Allah himself was speaking in their ears — and ordering them to put down their suicide belts.’

In the Fifties, the UK and U.S. governments both researched using ‘weaponised’ forms of LSD and another hallucinogen, BZ, for battlefield use.

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Frying tonight

Frying tonight

BULLETS and bombs are so 20th-century. The wars of the 21st will be dominated by ray guns. That, at least, is the vision of a band of military technologists who are building weapons that work by zapping the enemy’s electronics, rather than blowing him to bits. The result could be conflict that is less bloody, yet more effective, than what is now seen as conventional battle.

Electromagnetic weapons, to give these ray guns their proper name, are inspired by the cold-war idea of using the radio-frequency energy released by an atom bomb exploded high in the atmosphere to burn out an enemy’s electrical grid, telephone network and possibly even the wiring of his motor vehicles, by inducing a sudden surge of electricity in the cables that run these things.

That idea, fortunately, was never tried in earnest (though some tests were carried out). But, by thinking smaller, military planners have developed weapons that use a similar principle, without the need for a nuclear explosion. Instead, they create their electromagnetic pulses with magnetrons, the microwave generators at the hearts of radar sets (and also of microwave ovens). The result is kit that can take down enemy missiles and aircraft, stop tanks in their tracks and bring speedboats to a halt. It can also scare away soldiers without actually killing them.

Many electromagnetic weapons do, indeed, look like radars, at least to non-expert eyes. America’s air force is developing a range of them based on a type of radar called an active electronically scanned array (AESA). When acting as a normal radar, an AESA broadcasts its microwaves over a wide area. At the touch of a button, however, all of its energy can be focused onto a single point. If that point coincides with an incoming missile or aircraft, the target’s electronics will be zapped.

Small AESAs—those light enough to fit on a plane such as a joint strike fighter (F-35)—are probably restricted to zapping air-to-air and surface-to-air missiles (the air force is understandably reticent about supplying details of their capabilities). Ground- or ship-based kit can draw more power. This will be able to attack both ballistic missiles and aircraft, whose electronics tend to be better shielded.

In the case of the F-35, then, this sort of electromagnetic artillery is mainly defensive. But another plane, the Boeing Growler, uses electromagnetics as offensive weapons. The Growler, which first saw action in Iraq in 2010 and has been extensively (though discreetly) deployed during the NATO air war against Colonel Qaddafi’s forces in Libya, is a souped-up version of the Super Hornet. It is fitted with five pods: two under each wing and one under the fuselage. Some pods contain AESAs or similar electromagnetic weapons. Others have eavesdropping equipment inside them. In combination, the pods can be used either to spy on enemy communications or to destroy them; to suppress anti-aircraft fire; to disable the electronics of ground vehicles; and to make life so hazardous for enemy aircraft that they dare not fly (and probably to shoot them down electronically, too, though no one will confirm this). The Growler is able to keep its weapons charged up and humming by lowering special turbines into the airstream that rushes past the plane when it is flying. America has ordered 114 of the planes, and has taken delivery of 53.

By land, sea and air

Nor are aircraft the only vehicles from which destructive electromagnetic pulses can be launched. BAE Systems, a British defence firm, is building a ship-mounted electromagnetic gun. The High-Powered Microwave, as it is called, is reported by Aviation Week to be powerful enough to disable all of the motors in a swarm of up to 30 speedboats. Ships fitted with such devices would never be subject to the sort of attack that damaged USS Cole in 2000, when an al-Qaeda boat loaded with explosives rammed it. A gun like this would also be useful for stopping pirate attacks against commercial shipping.

Land vehicles, too, will soon be fitted with electromagnetic cannon. In 2013 America hopes to deploy the Radio-Frequency Vehicle Stopper. This device, developed at the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate in Quantico, Virginia, is a microwave transmitter the size and shape of a small satellite dish that pivots on top of an armoured car. When aimed at another vehicle, it causes that vehicle’s engine to stall.

This gentle way of handling the enemy—stopping his speedboats, stalling his tanks—has surprising advantages. For example, it expands the range of targets that can be attacked. Some favourite tricks of modern warfare, such as building communications centres in hospitals, or protecting sites with civilian “human shields”, cease to be effective if it is simply the electronics of the equipment being attacked that are destroyed. Though disabling an aircraft’s avionics will obviously cause it to crash, in many other cases, no direct harm is done to people at all.

The logical conclusion of all this is a so-called “human-safe” missile, which carries an electromagnetic gun instead of an explosive warhead. Such a missile is being developed at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, and will soon be tested at the White Sands Missile Range.

There is, however, at least one electromagnetic weapon that is designed to attack enemy soldiers directly—though with the intention of driving them off, rather than killing them. This weapon, which is called the Active Denial System, has been developed by the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate, in collaboration with Raytheon. It works by heating the moisture in a person’s skin to the point where it feels, according to Kelley Hughes, an official at the directorate who volunteered to act as a guinea pig, like opening a hot oven. People’s reaction, when hit by the beam, is usually to flee. The beam’s range is several hundred metres.

Such anti-personnel weapons are controversial. Tests on monkeys, including ones in which the animals’ eyes were held open to check that the beam does not blind, suggest it causes no permanent damage. But when a vehicle-mounted Active Denial System was sent to Afghanistan in May 2010, it was eventually shipped back home without being used. The defence department will not say exactly why. The suspicion, though, is that weapons like the Active Denial System really are reminiscent in many minds of the ray guns of science fiction, and that using them in combat would be a PR mistake. Disabling communications and destroying missiles is one thing. Using heat-rays on the enemy might look bad in the newspapers, and put civilians off their breakfast.

Cold showers are good for you

To every action there is, of course, an equal and opposite reaction, and researchers are just as busy designing ways of foiling electromagnetic weapons as they are developing them. Most such foils are types of Faraday cage—named after the 19th-century investigator who did much of the fundamental research on electromagnetism.

A Faraday cage is a shield of conductive material that stops electromagnetic radiation penetrating. Such shields need not be heavy. Nickel- and copper-coated polyester mesh is a good starting point. Metallised textiles—chemically treated for greater conductivity—are also used. But Faraday cages can be costly. EMP-tronic, a firm based in Morarp, Sweden, has developed such shielding, initially for the Gripen, a Swedish fighter jet. It will shield buildings too, though, for a suitable consideration. To cover one a mere 20 metres square with a copper-mesh Faraday cage the firm charges €300,000 ($400,000).

Shielding buildings may soon become less expensive than that. At least two groups of scientists—one at the National Research Council Canada and the other at Global Contour, a firm in Texas—are developing electrically conductive cement that will block electromagnetic pulses. Global Contour’s mixture, which includes fibres of steel and carbon, as well as a special ingredient that the firm will not disclose, would add only $20 to the $150 per cubic metre, or thereabouts, which ordinary concrete costs.

The arms race to protect small vehicles and buildings against electromagnetic warfare, then, has already begun. Protecting ships, however, requires lateral thinking. For obvious reasons, they cannot be encased in concrete. And building a conventional Faraday cage round a naval vessel would be horribly expensive.

Daniel Tam, of the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command in San Diego, thinks he has a way to get round that. He proposes to use the electrical conductivity of the sodium and chloride ions in seawater to create a novel type of Faraday cage. A shroud of seawater around a ship, thrown up by special pumps and hoses if the vessel came under electromagnetic attack, would do the trick, he reckons.

It is an ambitious idea. Whether it works or not, it shows how much the nature of modern belligerency is changing. Bombs and bullets will always have their place, of course. But the thought that a cold shower could protect a ship from attack is almost surreal.

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There’s No Hiding from New Breath-Detecting Robot

There’s No Hiding from New Breath-Detecting Robot

By David Axe Email Author
February 7, 2011 |

America’s robots make deadly weapons. But there are countermeasures to even the most fearsome bot now in service. To avoid detection by aerial drones, Taliban fighters in Afghanistan have begun traveling in smaller groups. In his excellent book War, Sebastian Junger even describes Afghan fighters covering themselves with blankets on sun-warmed rocks to erase their infrared signatures, confounding the drones’ IR sensors.

But hiding from the Pentagon’s unmanned army could get a lot harder, thanks to new ground robot that can actually hear you breathing, even through a wall. The bot’s originator calls it “enhanced situational awareness.” We call it terrifying. Still, the robot does have potentially serious limitations.

Beginning late last year, California firm TiaLinx began rolling out a suite of hardware designed to detect the most minuscule signs of human presence. The Eagle5-N, which debuted late last year, is a low-power, wide-bandwidth radar mounted on a tripod. “In addition to breath detection, it can monitor a heartbeat and, by extension, the stress level of a person,” National Defense reported. “While the device was designed to detect humans behind walls, it also makes sense for rescue missions or monitoring human trafficking at the border — above and underground.

Next, using U.S. Army funding, TiaLinx fitted the radar to a small, tracked, radio-controlled robot, the Cougar10-L. The idea, TiaLinx CEO Fred Mohamai said, is “to operate at standoff, hence keeping the operator out of harm’s way.” But the bot itself apparently has to press its radar array against the wall in order to sense through it.

So this month, the company went a step farther, boosting the radar’s power so the robot doesn’t have to be so close to the wall. The resulting Cougar20-H “can also be remotely programmed at multiple way points to scan the desired premise in a multi-story building and provide its layout,” TiaLinx boasted.

Like National Defense pointed out, civilian search-and-rescue teams should find that building-scanning ability really useful for spotting survivors amid earthquake rubble. Border cops could use it for finding smugglers’ tunnels. But it’s not clear how exactly the military might use TiaLinx’s breath-detecting robots in wartime.

Aerial drones have the advantage of speed, altitude and range, allowing them to quickly cover vast swaths of territory. Even with the Cougar20-H’s improved stand-off range, the operators still need to be very close to a suspected hideout in order to listen inside it. While you might not be able to hide from a robot that can hear you breathe, out-running it should be pretty easy.

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Darpa’s Hologram Goggles Will Unleash Drone Hell

Darpa’s Hologram Goggles Will Unleash Drone Hell

By Noah Shachtman

The Pentagon’s mad-science arm wants robotic death-from-above, on demand. And the key to getting it done just might be holograms.

Let me explain. Right now, authorizing and targeting air strikes is a process that’s sometimes bureaucratic, and sometimes dangerous as hell. Bureaucratic as in the Stanley McChrystal phase of the Afghanistan war, when it took a gaggle of lawyers, intelligence analysts, air controllers, and commanders at multiple layers to put steel on target.

The result was fewer civilian casualties — but more U.S. troops, locked in firefights without air support. Dangerous as hell as in the Libya war, where NATO jets are accidentally offing Libyan rebels with such alarming regularity that the opposition forces are now painting their vehicles’ roofs pink, to distinguish them from Gadhafi’s rides.

Darpa believes there might be a single technological fix to both problems: Give a single guy on the ground a direct data link to the drone (or manned plane) circling above. That would eliminate the multilayered, bureaucratic approach, in which information is often passed through IM windows and static-ridden radio connections. That same lone “Joint Terminal Attack Controller,” or JTAC, might be low-profile enough to slip into a situation like Libya without causing too much of an international ruckus.

The program to make this all happen is called Persistent Close Air Support, or PCAS. And the goal is to give that controller the ability to “request and control near-instantaneous airborne fire support.”

Darpa and the Air Force Research Lab recently handed out big contracts to the usual suspects — Northrop Grumman and Raytheon — for the next phase of the PCAS project.

But the military also gave a million bucks to the relatively tiny Vuzix Corp. of Rochester, New York. Which is a little odd, at first blush, because Vuzix is an eyewear company, specializing in augmented reality specs.

But a little augmented reality may be just what a JTAC needs, in order to call in those airstrikes on his own. Rather than staring down at a bunch of maps and computer screens — and calling up intelligence analysts at headquarters for more info — it’d be better (and faster, and less prone to error) if he could get all of that data right on his augmented reality goggles. Oh, and if there was an integrated head-tracker, so the attached computer could basically see what the JTAC sees.

“It is all about speeding up the CAS [close air support] mission and eliminating friendly fire issues that can occur if the user on the ground may not have the whole picture of what is around them,” Vuzix executive Stephen Glaser tells Danger Room.

“The head tracker knows where the user is looking, so the information the user is seeing changes as he moves or turns his head. Theoretically you could look up in the sky and a little green triangle would appear telling you, you have an F-16 30 miles out at 21,000 feet. It could also tell you what type of ordnance the plane was carrying, so you could make a quick decision if that plane would be appropriate for the mission.”

Some of this can be done today with pilots’ heads-up displays. But those require so much power and light, a JTAC would need to lug around an extra 8 pounds of batteries to make it work. (And it still wouldn’t work in direct sunlight.) That’s where the holograms come in.

Vuzix’s setup uses a more-or-less traditional microdisplay, then mates that up to a flat piece of glass called an optical waveguide. The light from the display travels down the glass and bounces around inside the glass parallel flats. Those beams are directed to holographic film, which bounces the image to the eye.

If the plan works, the system will be tiny — just 3 mm thick. And when the display is off, it’ll be totally see-through. Glaser notes: “This will ultimately allow us to design the display right into a pair of sunglasses, so no one will know you are even wearing a display.” Which could make the goggles good for civilians, as well as troops ordering in a robotic, lethal hail.

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