By Jeff Karoub
Small Times Staff Writer

Sept. 21, 2001 — Small tech will play a supporting role in the unfolding response to the recent terrorist attacks against the United States.

An examination of unclassified or public reports reveals numerous examples of small tech making its way into the U.S. arsenal in the months and years ahead.

The U.S. Department of Defense is pursuing MEMS applications in three areas: inertial measurement for weapons, navigation and stabilization; distributed sensing and control for maintenance, intelligence and chemical identification; and information technology for mass data storage and displays.

“MEMS are the prime enablers of the weapons of


A guidance system, equipped with a MEMS
sensor developed by BAE Systems, helps
a medium-range anti-tank missile find its target
at the end of an 18-month trial last year.

the future,” says a report by the Institute for Defense Analysis (IDA), a federally funded, independent research institute that works with the Defense Department to accelerate the transfer of MEMS and other advanced technology to the battlefield.

Brian Cohen, an IDA researcher, said fielding and production of military MEMS technology has been limited, but miniaturized sensors, such as accelerometers, “are at a variety of stages of use.”

Here are a few of the military applications for MEMS:

  • A MEMS sensor developed by BAE Systems last year successfully guided a medium-range anti-tank missile to a direct hit at the end of an 18-month trial in France. It was believed to be a first for the technology, a derivative of the company’s silicon inertial measurement unit (IMU).
  • Honeywell has designed, built and tested MEMS-based inertial sensors and demonstrated their performance in IMUs. The IMU, which consists of three gyroscopes and three accelerometers, has applications in advanced navigation and weapons guidance systems.
  • C.S. Draper Laboratory Inc., an independent, nonprofit research laboratory in Cambridge, Mass., has developed and successfully tested guidance systems that combine Global Positioning Systems with micromechanical sensors for installation in 5-inch artillery rounds. Draper also has developed silicon micromachined condenser microphones implemented on a single chip. Additionally, the lab has done fundamental research and development of micromechanical hydrophones that detect low frequencies, as well as arrays of sensors for high frequencies.

The advantages of using MEMS include increased reliability and performance, and decreased cost and power consumption.

In weapons guidance, for instance, MEMS can help reduce the number of unexploded weapons, which pose a threat to civilians and troops, require more attacks on the same target and force costly, risky efforts to clear the explosives from the battlefield.

According to a Defense Department report on MEMS published in 1995, unexploded weapons launched during the Persian Gulf War caused 104 injuries and 30 deaths among friendly forces.

MEMS accelerometers, far smaller and more durable than conventional systems, improve target effectiveness and reliability in exploding munitions, the report said.

The technology also is easily transferable: Almost any military system that has a gyro or accelerometer is a candidate for a MEMS device, according to the defense report. That includes aircraft, missiles, tanks and ships.

A $30,000 missile contains $1,000 worth of conventional accelerometers and gyros. Those parts can be replaced with an equivalent MEMS device for $20.

Still, it’s not clear just how close MEMS sensors for weapons guidance are to full-scale production.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a Defense Department arm that began funding MEMS nearly a decade ago and seeks high-risk, high-payoff technology, sought submissions from industry earlier this year to develop robust, low-cost MEMS sensors for missile guidance and missile health monitoring applications.

DARPA’s submission of proposals document said new sensing devices are emerging rapidly, but there are deterrents to military use, including problems in fabricating different sensors on a single substrate.

Meanwhile, development goes well beyond weapons.

Lockheed Martin’s Tactical Aircraft Systems and Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. are developing MEMS-based tire pressure sensors for U.S. and British aircraft.

The devices, embedded in the rubber of the tire, sense and transmit tire inflation pressure and temperature. In addition to extending the life of the tires and reducing maintenance cost, the sensors also can show if there are potential mechanical problems with the wheels or brakes.

Pressure sensors are part of a larger area of MEMS defense applications called distributed sensing and control.

The defense report said MEMS are being developed for aircraft and vehicles to monitor temperature, pressure, flow rate, vibration, surface wear rate, acceleration and fluid contaminants.

A study performed to determine the benefit of such sensors on the H-46 helicopter used by the Navy and Marines found that they could cut downtime for maintenance by 50 percent. The sensors also would result in $60 million worth of savings in maintenance costs, and a 30 percent reduction in fatal accidents.

A great deal of research and development is going into distributed sensors for situational awareness and chemical identification.

Small, highly reliable and affordable devices and systems are being developed that can help detect and gather intelligence.

Tiny sensors, called “smart dust,” can monitor light, heat, movement and sound. Larger versions are being produced as wireless infrared sensors and security monitoring tags to keep employees out of restricted areas.

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, and Crossbow Technology Inc., a San Jose-based company, are working to commercialize smart dust. Crossbow is supplying a 1-inch-diameter version to universities, military and civil research facilities and businesses.

With research funded by the Defense Department, the technology also would monitor people.

MicroChemLab Technologies, which is a private-sector spin-off from Sandia National Laboratories, has developed a hand-held gas analyzer that can detect poisonous agents like sarin, soman and mustard gas, plus a wide range of explosives. The detector could be used by troops to help sniff out terrorist tools.

Prototypes have been produced and military applications are expected within two years, said Marion Scott, manager for national security and sensors in Sandia’s Microsystems Center.

On the surveillance side, two prototype picosatellites were released into orbit earlier this month after spending a year stored inside a larger satellite.

Built by The Aerospace Corp. and developed by DARPA, the satellites the size of a deck of playing cards contain radio-frequency MEMS switches and are designed to boost the military’s fleet of surveillance, communications and radar-ranging satellites.

Although this mission is meant to be a demonstration of the technology, DARPA said picosatellites could become important in future combat actions.

Hundreds of picosats could be launched quickly from a single ground-based rocket or from an F-16 fighter plane, and within days, they could be clustered over a particular geographic area, according to DARPA.

Other areas of MEMS development are even further down the road.

Hewlett-Packard Co. is working with DARPA on MEMS-based data storage devices that are rugged, small, low-power and high-performance.

Although it’s still several years away, the goal is to develop a hand-held device that offers soldiers detailed maps, mission plans and real-time intelligence, said Jim Brug, HP’s department manager for advanced storage.

“Just as the average user in consumer world would like to carry around movies and information … the military also can make use of that capability,” he said. “The soldier of the future will strongly depend on information, and the ability to access it.”

But Brug said many details need to be worked out, but HP is using solutions from DVDs and flat-panel displays to advance the technology.

“Everyone’s looking for killer apps in MEMS,” he said. “This is harder than most.”

Finding MEMS solutions for the military — already a major goal before the terror attacks — could take on an added urgency in the weeks and months ahead.

One example is Sense Holdings Inc., which announced Wednesday it had secured more than $1 million to accelerate the development of its MEMS-based explosive detection technology for the military, law enforcement and security markets.

Dore Perler, Sense Holdings president and chief executive, said the technology, developed at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), said stepping up the pace is part of a “new degree of responsibility” required by U.S. industry in the wake of the terrorist attacks.

MEMS expert David Nagel said it’s too early to tell how recent events will affect the development of small tech, but the precedent is there for acceleration.

“When there’s been some sort of flap, such as the Persian Gulf War, the government will look at what’s nearly ready and push it out quicker than it might have,” said Nagel, a research professor in George Washington University’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

“Historically, it’s been true and it’s human nature. If you’re under duress and you have a tool … you test it in real life.”


Jeff Karoub at [email protected] or call 734-528-6291.


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