COURTESY OCEANIT LABORATORIES
This scene from a computer-animated video shows the way Oceanit's SWARM sensors form an electronic web around a building, allowing remote operators to monitor vital signs of people inside
Isle firm wins $1M to refine sensor web
The SWARM system can detect people through walls, and measure certain vital signs
Soldiers battling in urban areas and workers rescuing victims from rubble and burning buildings often share a common problem: how to tell whether people are inside a structure, and perhaps more importantly, whether the people are alive.
Now a Honolulu-based company has received a state and federal research grants to produce devices that will do both of those things. Engineers from Oceanit Laboratories Inc. and the University of Hawaii have received state and federal grants totaling about $1 million to develop the so-called SWARM system.
SWARM stands for Sense-through Wall Adaptive Radar Mesh, and what makes the system unique is not simply that it can detect people through walls, but that it can also measure their heart and respiratory rates.
The latest phase of grant money is meant to finance work to miniaturize components of the SWARM system.
Reducing their size will make the components harder for enemy soldiers to see, reduce the power needed to operate them and lower manufacturing costs, said Luke Jospeh, an Oceanit design engineer working on the project.
"Military agencies are having to deal with a new battlefield," said Ken Cheung, Oceanit's science and technology manager in charge of the project.
As they move from building to building in urban areas, Cheung said, soldiers "would like to know if there are people inside (the buildings) and if so, what their intentions are."
Although mind-reading through walls remains "science fiction now," Cheung said, Oceanit has figured out how to gather other kinds of information, including vital signs indicating whether a person is sleeping or awake, calm or agitated.
Sitting in Oceanit's brainstorming lounge amid funky bamboo furniture and a wall-sized photo of a Hawaii beach scene, Cheung joined Joseph and Ian Kitajima, Oceanit's marketing manager, to explain how the system works.
Joseph stood at a dry erase board and drew a simple diagram depicting a square building surrounded by a constellation of tiny circles. On a coffee table was a radio transmitter-receiver that was about the size of a computer mouse and camouflaged to look like a stone.
As Joseph explained it, when deployed around a building, the radio devices create a sort of radio-signal web or mesh, with each of the devices sending messages to each other. The radio devices are called nodes.
If a radio signal is then directed into the building from what Oceanit engineers call a "beacon node," some radio waves bounce back out and the nodes pick up these echoing waves, Joseph said.
Because of a phenomenon called the "Doppler shift," a beating heart or sound of breathing can change the frequency of the echoing waves, and the nodes can detect the change and make sense of it, he said.
When the echoing wave gets back to the radio mesh, the nodes pick up the signal and provide information about both the heartbeat and the person's location in the building, Joseph said.
What Oceanit and UH now are working on is not the basic SWARM system -- that already has been proven to work -- but to miniaturize the computer mouse-sized devices to reduce them at least to the size of matchboxes.
The tiny sensors could then be dropped from a helicopter or unmanned drone, so soldiers wouldn't have to go near a building before they knew whether there were people in it.
"These things are designed to save guys' lives," Kitajima said.
The project is being financed by a grant from the U.S. Department of Defense under the federal Small Business Innovation Research Program, which encourages federal agencies to steer grant money to small private companies that can develop technologies the agencies need.
The SWARM project has landed both a modest Phase 1 SBIR grant as well as a recently awarded $750,000 Phase 2 grant. The project has also received a small portion of matching funds from the state of Hawaii, bringing its total grant funding to about $1 million.
Collaborating with the Oceanit engineers are UH Professors Victor Lubecke, Olga Boric-Lubecke and Anders Host-Madsen, Cheung said.
As Oceanit sees is, the applications for SWARM go far beyond the military. The devices could be used by firefighters, for instance, to search for people in burning buildings, Joseph said. After earthquakes, the sensors could be dropped and rolled into rubble piles that would be impenetrable to other types of sensors, he said.
"We're pretty confident we're going to be successful with this," Joseph said. "Once you make it available, the people who need it will use it. They'll figure out ways."