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DARPA working on inertial-nav 'Smart Boot' tech

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Elite Pentagon deathnerds have just awarded a contract for development of a highly accurate inertial navigation module which will fit in the heel of a shoe.

Massachusetts sensors'n'tracking company Intersense were chuffed to announce the deal this week, in which the firm will work with Case Western university to deliver tiny yet highly accurate inertial-nav units under a programme called Micro Inertial Navigation Technology (MINT).

Behind MINT, it scarcely seems necessary to say, is DARPA - the renowned US military tech bureau which sneers at retro concepts like the bleeding edge. At DARPA, they're more into the radioactive edge, the intellectual tool so sharp that it splits atoms as it cuts.

One might ask, with GPS satnav tracking kit nowadays so cheap and tiny as to be found in every mildly-smart phone, just why the Pentagon's Q-branch is so keen on inertial nav. But in fact satnav has several failings.

First of all, it only works when it can receive signals from the satellites, which generally means having line-of-sight to a decently large slice of sky. Indoors, or even worse underground or underwater, satnav is not much good.

Secondly there's accuracy. In general, current GPS kit able to pick up a decent number of satellites will still show errors in the region of five or 10m. This is good enough to tell you what road or motorway lane your car is in, what building you are standing outside and so on. But it's not usually good enough to score a direct hit on - say - a pickup truck or a shack using a smart weapon. As a result, smart bombs and missiles generally use a laser aiming dot or supplement their GPS with inertial nav, terrain-matching radar etc to achieve a precise hit.

There are ways to boost GPS accuracy to the one-metre range, and it's hoped that both the upcoming Galileo Euro-satnav system and next-gen GPS will both offer such accuracy as standard. But they still won't work indoors, underground etc.

That causes big problems for several things DARPA would like to do. First, there's the matter of operating small robots - flying, groundcrawling or swimming - inside buildings or under water. Then there's the business of keeping track of soldiers, special operatives and so on in such environments. And of course, it might be useful to be able to plant tracker bugs on people belonging to the other side, too, and still have them work even indoors.

When trying to work out where a person is going using inertial nav, the best place to put your sensors is on his or her foot. This is because the foot doesn't swivel about, wriggle, bend, or deviate from its course as much as the rest of the body. Also, it spends a good deal of its time stationary on the ground, making the problem of working out what's happening a lot easier.

That's why DARPA's MINT programme specifies that its desired micro-tracker units should fit "within the shoe sole".

Intersense, in fact, already have a boot-heel inertial unit, NavShoe™, developed to help firemen or paramedics lost or trapped during disaster situations: but it's not very accurate. Now, with DARPA cash and a "high-resolution, error-correction ground reaction sensor cluster" from Case Western, that's apparently about to change.

While the uses in robots, indoor manhunter missiles and such are doubtless very exciting, there's one other application for this technology which rather leaps to mind. It is, after all, already thought that top-secret US technology is now able to locate and track individual terrorists with a high degree of accuracy. Thus far, the tendency has been to obliterate these men with such weapons as Hellfire missiles fired from Predator drones - firepower capable of destroying a tank, and as such frequently seen as overkill.

In many cases, it might be better to strike with some more focused weapon, one more capable of inflicting an appropriate level of damage and less likely to injure or kill innocent bystanders.

The day of the dreaded smart boot, capable of delivering a surgically-accurate kick to the exactly-identified ass of America's chosen enemies, would seem to be upon us. ®

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