Making sensors more sensitive nets Army engineer top civilian award

Joshua Fairley uses supercomputer to develop supersensors.

In the new netcentric model of warfare, sensors play a huge role. They serve as sentinels, scouts, searchers, maintenance monitors and even aiming devices. In asymmetric warfare against an unconventional army that blends in with the local populace and attacks using hidden explosives, sensors are especially important.

That's no doubt why Joshua Fairley, an engineer and program manager with the near-surface phenomenology program at the Army Corps of Engineers' Engineer Research and Development Center in Vicksburg, Miss., recently won the Defense Department David O. Cooke Excellence in Public Administration award. This is only the third time the award has been given out.

Working in Countermine Phenomenology, Joint Antiterrorism-Force Protection and Anti-Terrorist Barrier programs, Fairley used a CrayXT3, the second-largest Defense Department supercomputer, to create a simulated virtual environment to find out what affects the accuracy of sensors. With that data, Fairley developed a mathematical formula to improve the detection of mines and improvised explosive devices and to reduce false negatives -- boosting sensor accuracy, at least in the virtual world, by 75 percent.

Essentially, Fairley was able to mathematically model how specific sensors the military uses "see" what's around them and how they pick out the specific heat signatures of explosives and other threats in the cacophony of a rural environment. The "noise" is created by everything from soil to terrain. Fairley's accomplishment was to replicate a geotypical rural environment in minute detail right down to the weeds. He can't say exactly which environment, but a good guess might be, say, Iraq or Afghanistan.

While it might seem odd that an Army Corps of Engineers military engineering laboratory would be working on detecting mines, the Corps is a natural home for experiments in modeling geography, given its long history with massive civil works projects to redirect rivers and move earth.

Denizens of online virtual worlds, be they massively multiplayer games or communities, are accustomed to moving about in re-created environments, and branches of the military already are training in replicas of a number of locales in Iraq, so the extent of Fairley's accomplishment might not be immediately apparent. What's impressive is the level of detail he has achieved not in creating an artist's rendering of terrain, but in visually modeling the actual attributes down to dirt and leaves and in virtualizing the amounts and types of heat they give off.

When this achievement is applied to sensors in theater, service members will be better able to pinpoint and defuse explosives, saving limbs and lives.

In addition to his sensor work, Fairley also developed a testing apparatus for "an anti-terrorist barrier system with unusual dimensions and high load requirements, later validated with full-scale crash tests," according to the press release about his award. The presumably large, strong and oddly shaped protective structures now are in military and civilian use.