Sunday, December 29, 2002

# Posted 6:16 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

GEE WHIZ HIGH TECH: Imagine being able to see through walls or beneath the ground. Imagine tracking devices the size of a quarter which can be located anywhere on earth. Imagine a two-way radio communicator that cannot be intercepted or jammed and runs on so little power that it could be mounted on wristwatch. Dick Tracy, eat your heart out.

All these things will be made possible thanks to a single technology known as UWB, or UltraWideBand. I only came across it because I live with an electrical engineer who is going to be presenting on UWB at a conference in a few weeks. Since the focus of his presentation is military applications, he wanted a politics person to give him a hand. So here I am.

The battlefield potential of UWB is stunning. Right now, urban settings enables less sophisticated forces to match their superiors by taking advantage of the complex and confusing battlefield environment. Within a decade, individual soldiers will all have portable radar devices that let them locate opposing forces in urban environments without ever having to confront them face to face. The US Army is poised to test prototypes of the individual radar should it have to conduct operations in Baghdad this winter. Other applications include searching below the ground for hidden tunnels and bunker complexes (as well as land mines). Tracking devices based on UWB would faciliate communication and tactical planning on the battlefield.

For a whole set of downloadable articles explaining how UWB works, click here. The basic idea is that instead of using continuous radio waves to communicate, UWB relies on short pulses of radio energy. Released at intervals so precise that they can be measured in trillionths of a second, one can only detect such pulses if one knows in advance the schedule of their release. Whereas as high-frequency radar waves bounce off walls or other solid objects, UWB pulses can be emitted on much longer wavelengths which go right through solid objects.

The peacetime applications of UWB are no less important. Its main commercial application will be the creation of wireless local area networks (LANs) which can handle 10 megs or more per second. UWB may also enable significant improvements of cellphone networks, which are now limited by the scarcity of available bandwidth. Moreover, UWB should finally let cellphones work indoors. From a humanitarian perspective, UWB would be critical in locating victims of earthquakes or other disasters, who may have been buried under mountains of rubble. Alternately, parents could easily locate children who have become lost in public places or even kidnapped. The possibilities are endless. But first we need peace.
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