Sensor Advances for Military Environments

Recently, a number of advances in sensor technology for battlefield/military have found their way into the news. For example, the US Army Research Lab is testing tritium, a radioisotope produced in nuclear reactors, to power sensors. The goal is to…

Recently, a number of advances in sensor technology for battlefield/military have found their way into the news.

For example, the US Army Research Lab is testing tritium, a radioisotope produced in nuclear reactors, to power sensors. The goal is to develop a battlefield energy source with a 13-year half-life. Tritium prototypes are attempting to replace chemical batteries (with their extremely small capacity) by providing a trickle charge for several years.

This trickle charge is particularly important if the military needs to know about activities in an isolated area. One way to keep a squad out of danger is to use a monitor that senses acoustic and electromagnetic vibrations and sends the data to a safe location. A power source would enable the sensors to operate remotely for extended periods. The challenge is for the sensors to work at a sufficiently low power level to make the power source safe, practical, and easy to use. Tritium isotopes emit radiation at levels comparable to medical X-rays.

“Trace levels of tritium that you would find in a theater exit sign or glow stick are just enough to power Army sensors that can detect acoustics and electromagnetic signals for more than 10 years,” Dimos Katsis, designer of energy-harvesting circuits at Athena Energy and a member of the research team, said in an Army press release this week.

Researchers say it will take a few years before this technology is ready for prime time in the field.
Another area of considerable research and development involves gathering data in challenging areas, where sensors must be remote or embedded covertly. DARPA is looking at ocean-located sensors that can become underwater “satellites” to minimize the time and expense of the Navy searching out submarines.
Hyperspectral sensors based on automatic and on-board data processing is another area of ongoing work. Attempts to use them to locate roadside bombs based on perceiving disturbed earth are under way. Automatic processing spares officials from wading through hours of video and not understanding exactly what is being seen. Other sensors use the color spectrum to defeat camouflage by detecting chlorophyll. No chlorophyll — no plant.
Though many useful technologies have been around for decades (such as night vision), improvements are still a focus of research. The addition of 3D, the replacement of image intensifier tubes, and adjusting for power constraints in certain situations are all on the drawing board.

SENSIAC areas of expertise.
(Source: SENSIAC presentation)

One agency that helps the military with sensing technologies is the Department of Defense Sensing Information Analysis Center (SENSIAC). Specializing in infrared, electro-optical, laser, radar, acoustical measures and countermeasures, electronic warfare, and data fusion, it spends approximately $3 billion annually on research for all branches of the military and government.
Just as NASA’s sensor technology translates into applications from medical to consumer goods, military sensor technology advances have an impact on industrial, medical, and consumer segments.