Sunday, September 12, 2004

Urban-canyon flying vehicles, persistent staring reconnaissance and perching machines may one day prove the weapons of choice among American troops doing battle in dim city streets far from home.

That is, if someone comes up with a workable design.

A public call for ideas to help soldiers on the unpredictable, unorthodox “urban battlefield” has been issued by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA — the unabashedly inventive arm of the Defense Department that specializes in “revolutionary, high-payoff research,” according to its mission statement.

DARPA is looking for what it calls “force multipliers” in 11 separate disciplines, seeking ways to bolster the smaller numbers of U.S. forces commonly on patrol in the likes of Fallujah or Kabul.

The official solicitation offers a wish list of futuristic technology, which includes devices that literally can see through walls or perhaps spirit a soldier out of a hazardous position.

“Systems of interest include capabilities to detect and characterize personnel and equipment in severe urban clutter and through external and internal building walls; flying/perching machines able to carry and operate communications and sensor payloads; survivable urban-canyon flying vehicles,” the DARPA notice says.

An initial round of proposals already has arrived, said DARPA spokeswoman Jan Walker. She would not comment on the nature of the offerings to date, other than to note, “We’re very satisfied with what we’ve received so far.”

The agency is prepared to offer initial grants ranging from $50,000 to $400,000 to potential suppliers who think they have the right stuff for an urban battlefield.

Some of the specifications from the DARPA notice sound like they’re from science fiction, but the agency considers them all emerging “asymmetrical warfare countermeasures.”

Among other innovations, the group is keenly interested in sensor devices that “discriminate combatants from non-combatants,” or detect the presence of rocket-propelled grenades, crude improvised explosives or the odd weapons of “suicide fighters.”

DARPA would like to see troops defeat their urban enemies with a minimal disruption of the besieged neighborhood itself.

“The objective is to develop on-demand, infantry-operated, ultra-precision, beyond line-of-sight lethal and non-lethal weaponry that has high maneuverability for use in the congested, three-dimensional urban environment,” the solicitation says.

It also seeks novel ways to deliver supplies, communicate, gather and analyze intelligence, control crowds and stabilize a community in the throes of combat.

DARPA envisions some unusual training methods for urban “warfighters,” specifically those methods that “enhance sensitivity to local non-combatants through the use of large, multi-player games tailored to the region of interest’s culture, that can educate about governance, economic development, government services, etc.”

Hopeful designers have until Oct. 6 for initial proposals; DARPA will continue to accept final ideas until June 5.

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