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Tri-corders, alpine oxy-pills: Acropocalypse at DARPA


It's been a busy few days for the renowned US military crazytech research bureau, DARPA*. The Pentagon wack-profs have announced plans to develop a new drug which will acclimatise troops to thin mountain air very fast, and unveiled plans to make small, portable magnetic-resonance Tricorder-style scan gizmos. They have also committed an extremely serious acronym crime.

First up we have Rapid Altitude and Hypoxia Acclimatization, RAHA. Under RAHA, DARPA would like to see "novel collaborations and new strategies that will allow for rapid (hours to 7 days) acclimatization to high altitudes and other conditions of hypoxia".

Troops sent to fight at high altitudes - for instance the mountains of Afghanistan - normally need an extended period of acclimatisation in theatre to avoid altitude sickness and get their physical performance back up to something like normal. DARPA would prefer it if they could simply take some kind of pill or injection.

"Ultimately," according to the programme announcement, "the RAHA program will create a novel prophylactic measure sufficiently advanced to perform Food & Drug Administration (FDA) clinical trials."

Apart from miracle oxygen pills or whatnot, DARPA hasn't neglected traditional wingnuts-and-bolts hardware tech. Specifically, it would also like to build some kind of miracle Tricorder-esque scanner, useful for "through-wall imaging" by "small, deployable sensors".

One possible avenue to this might be the use of SQUIDs, Superconducting Quantum Interference Devices. These extremely sensitive magnetometers are already used for probing brain activity or peering into the Earth's crust in search of resources, fault lines and suchlike.

It has been speculated that SQUIDs could be used to track magnetic tags placed in a person's body by ingestion or injection - and funnily, DARPA says it is pursuing "tagging/reading" in this context. There is already reason to believe that some kind of cunning tag tech has been used in the Afghan hinterlands.

SQUIDs could also allow remote TEMPEST-style probing of electronic equipment or storage arrays, or might permit the detection and maybe even identification of people and animals by the electromagnetic signature of their bodies. This could offer handheld, through-walls motion detectors of the sort featured in the movie Aliens. Again, DARPA give a nod and a wink here by hinting at applications in "security fences".

The big practical snag with current SQUIDs, however, is that at present they require superconductor circuitry chilled to within a hair of absolute zero using liquid helium. This makes them cumbersome and power-hungry.

But DARPA reckons you might be able to build "room-temperature sensors with SQUID-like performance" using "Heterostructural Uncooled Magnetic Sensors (HUMS)". ("Heterostructural" apparently means the same as "multiferroic", if that's any help.)

Rounding off the week's DARPAgasm, the brainiac bureau has also said that it would like some nifty new fibre networking gear for shifting data about inside future aircraft. Gear like this is soon to be fitted to the Stealth bomber, for instance. However the scientists in charge, seeking the traditional military bucket o' letters to christen the plan, have in our opinion made a very disappointing effort. The network kit has been dubbed Network Enabled by WDM Highly Integrated Photonics (NEW-HIP).

Pshaw. They might as well have made it Network blah blah High-capacity Optic Technology Nexus with Extreme Speed Support: NEW-HOTNESS. Presumably in contrast to today's Obsolescent Legacy Devices and Basic, Un-Sophisticated Technology Expected to Disappear (OLD & BUSTED).

We say that this is another clear case of CUTNPASTE nomenclature (Contrived Unsuitable Technical Names for Projects, with Acronym as Sole Target of the Effort). And if you're going to play that game, you should at least play it properly.

Poor show. If DARPA was a Greek god, its temple would surely be located atop the Acropocalypse. ®

*The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency.

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