Feeds

Underground mole-satnavs to work off lightning strikes

'Sferic' zap-sniff tech for future subterranean warriors

Top 5 reasons to deploy VMware with Tegile

News has emerged of a secret US military programme intended to let troops navigate about inside huge underground enemy tunnel complexes by measuring energy pulses given off by lightning bolts.

The project is known as "Sferics-Based Underground Geolocation", or S-BUG, and is focused on building "a mapping and navigation system that provides Global Positioning System (GPS) equivalent accuracy in underground environments".

GPS signals from US military satellites are used in millions of smartphones, car sat navs and other gadgets worldwide, but they don't work without clear line-of-sight to the satellites - in other words without an unobstructed view of the sky.

Meanwhile, it seems, other US satellites - the vast fleet of sky spies operated by the American intelligence and military communities - have driven more and more people and things of interest to disappear underground. Unfortunately for the US spooks, tunnelling and subterranean engineering in general have become much cheaper in recent times, making this easier to do.

Not only does a deep tunnel complex shield an organisation from the prying orbital eyes, it is also good protection against a sudden bombing raid of the sort which destroyed Iraq's Osirak reactor in 1981 or smashed a possible nuclear facility of some kind in Syria during 2006.

Thus the world's superweapon projects, secret bases, command and control HQs etc have tended to move underground more and more: and thus the US military/spook/special-ops community has tended to ponder subterranean operations more and more.

Naturally, when wondering how to navigate deep below the Earth's surface in a hollowed-out lair where a secret superweapon is being fashioned for the purpose of holding the world to ransom, there's only one federal agency to call: DARPA, the maverick Pentagon gadgeteers who among other things created the most successful vehicle for the distribution of pornography the world has ever known*.

DARPA boffins have noted that one of the few kinds of wireless signal which can penetrate underground is low-frequency radio. Unfortunately such signals are quite hard to generate at the required power levels. A network of lo-freq RF nav stations widespread enough to offer decent accuracy would probably be impossible to deploy.

But the right kind of signals are generated naturally by lightning strikes, which cause the emission of "atmospheric" ("sferic" or "spheric") radio pulses. An underground receiver could perhaps be built capable of detecting sferics from lightning bolts hitting the surface hundreds of miles away. It could be informed of the positions of the strikes over LF comms by a single specialised surface base station, similarly far off, and thus calculate its own position from sferic data coming in from several directions.

Hence S-BUG, which was reportedly the subject of a small DARPA feasibility investigation last year. Evidently this indicated that S-BUG might just possibly be feasible, as the agency is now to hold a conference (mostly classified SECRET) for tech firms interested in taking the project forward.

Doubtless it's merely a coincidence that DARPA has lately started up another project, NIMBUS, aimed at triggering artificial lightning. ®

*The internet.

Beginner's guide to SSL certificates

More from The Register

next story
PORTAL TO ELSEWHERE scried in small galaxy far, far away
Supermassive black hole dominates titchy star formation
Boffins say they've got Lithium batteries the wrong way around
Surprises at the nano-scale mean our ideas about how they charge could be all wrong
Edge Research Lab to tackle chilly LOHAN's final test flight
Our US allies to probe potential Vulture 2 servo freeze
Europe prepares to INVADE comet: Rosetta landing site chosen
No word yet on whether backup site is labelled 'K'
Cracked it - Vulture 2 power podule fires servos for 4 HOURS
Pixhawk avionics juice issue sorted, onwards to Spaceport America
Archaeologists and robots on hunt for more Antikythera pieces
How much of the world's oldest computer can they find?
prev story

Whitepapers

Secure remote control for conventional and virtual desktops
Balancing user privacy and privileged access, in accordance with compliance frameworks and legislation. Evaluating any potential remote control choice.
Intelligent flash storage arrays
Tegile Intelligent Storage Arrays with IntelliFlash helps IT boost storage utilization and effciency while delivering unmatched storage savings and performance.
WIN a very cool portable ZX Spectrum
Win a one-off portable Spectrum built by legendary hardware hacker Ben Heck
High Performance for All
While HPC is not new, it has traditionally been seen as a specialist area – is it now geared up to meet more mainstream requirements?
Beginner's guide to SSL certificates
De-mystify the technology involved and give you the information you need to make the best decision when considering your online security options.