ANAHEIM, Calif. – The Pentagon is rushing into service in Iraq a pair of technologies developed under its advanced research arm: a Humvee-mounted sensor for pinpointing hostile gunfire and a "command post of the future" designed to cut down on combat leaders' travel and streamline decision-making.
The tools come courtesy of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (search), which is known mostly for its imaginative, over-the-horizon work. Current DARPA projects include underwater holograms that disguise submarines and artificial human "tissue" for testing vaccines against biological and chemical weapons.
But urgent war zone needs have prompted the Pentagon agency to get to soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan inventions ranging from handheld computerized language translators to thousands of pen-sized water purifiers.
Sensors atop an aluminum pole on the back of a Humvee pick up supersonic shock waves to give an approximate location of gunfire, and sound waves measured from the muzzle blast narrow it some more.
A cigarette box-sized display on the dashboard or windshield then shows the findings. "Incoming, 5 o'clock," says a speaker inside the box.
Assailants in urban Iraq are often inexperienced, missing on the first shot, said Karen Wood, who supervised development of "Boomerang" in just two months. They also tend to be armed with AK-47s rather than more accurate rifles, giving soldiers time to return fire or get out of harm's way.
DARPA tested the Boomerang on a snowy December day at the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory in Quantico, Va. The Marines and Army in Iraq (DARPA won't say which units) then volunteered to take 50, becoming the first to try them in battle.
DARPA's goal is to lower the cost of a sniper detector from $10,000 to $3,000 and to link them in a network that lets soldiers throughout Baghdad know sniper whereabouts. And while hostile gunfire doesn't pose near the lethal threat to U.S. troops as craftily rigged roadside bombs, every little bit helps.
"Is a 20 percent solution better than nothing?" Wood said. "If it saves lives, a partial solution is better than nothing."
New computer systems designed to streamline the command bureaucracy - letting senior officers collaborate in real time with visual tools - will get tested in the field by the 1st Cavalry Division, which will take 50 such computer banks to Iraq in about a month. Half will go in the division's Baghdad headquarters while the rest are sprinkled at eight command posts in the area. All will be connected by one overarching wireless network.
Each bank of computers has three screens: one for the user's own work, one for 3-D simulated battlefields and a third to peer into what's happening on other systems throughout the city. Commanders will also be able to talk to each other using voice over Internet technology.
The network is designed to sharply reduce the need for commanders to crisscross the city for meetings while hastening the flow of information. Instead of sending an e-mail request, for example, they can simply drop in on each other's computers for data they need.
"Right now we have to bring everyone to the same place to have a meeting, and Baghdad is a dangerous place," said Ryan Paterson, project manager of DARPA's "Command Post of the Future," which is being developed by Maya Viz LLC of Pittsburgh and three other companies.
DARPA had been working with a few generals since 1999 but had no takers until wartime, said Steve Roth, Maya Viz's chief executive officer. "It was limping along on pennies," he said.
Then, Maj. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the 1st Cav commander, invited him to Fort Hood, Texas, for a demonstration in October. Chiarelli immediately agreed to test it in Iraq.
Other inventions highlighted by DARPA earlier this month at a conference that coincided with the Grand Challenge desert robotic race were geared toward girding soldiers against the elements, improving their field nutrition and cleansing dirty water.
Special Operations forces recently tried a handheld vacuum chamber that sucks heat from the body, much like a radiator does for an automobile. They hit the treadmill in a 95-degree room at a Stanford University lab, saddled with backpacks. During breaks, they stuck their hands in the bubble-shaped vacuum, developed by Avacore Technologies Inc. of Palo Alto, Calif.
The Special Operations Command was encouraged enough by the results to ask for more devices, which they will test on their own, said Dr. Brett Giroir, deputy director of DARPA's defense sciences office. DARPA's next step is designing a body cooler small enough to fit inside a soldier's boot.
DARPA operates a $2.8 billion annual budget with only 240 employees. Project managers such as The Boomerang project's Wood generally stay only four years, a practice aimed at preventing researchers from getting too comfortable.
"You have four years to make a difference and you feel the clock ticking the moment you walk in the door," said Wood. "It guarantees that you have fresh ideas coming through the door."