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Project lets Army dig deep into underground data

Taking cues from the oil industry, the military may soon have a tool for detecting subterranean haunts of terrorists and weapons. Images: A look beneath the Earth

Soldiers combing the mountains of Afghanistan or the deserts of Iraq for subterranean stashes of weapons of mass destruction--or even the elusive Osama bin Laden--may soon have help.

Silicon Graphics Inc., or SGI, plans to announce Monday that it will be collaborating with the U.S. Army Battle Command Battle Laboratory in Fort Huachuca, Ariz., over the next several months on what it has dubbed a Subterranean Target Identification program.

underground

The program would allow soldiers to use seismic data from the Earth to help them feel out the presence of underground bunkers. Paul Temple, a senior manager for business development at SGI, said the idea was sparked by systems the Mountain View, Calif.-based company has developed for drillers in the oil and gas industry.

The company expects to test the technology over the next couple of months and to issue a statement of its feasibility in October, Temple said. With the military's approval, it plans to roll out a product by next July.

Right now, the military uses only satellite imagery of the Earth to search for potential underground mischief. "They look at the ground structure, and they might see that the Earth is different from this month to the next, but that's the only way they know now if something might have messed with it," Temple said.

Using the proposed target identification program, the military would first scatter seismic sensors around the area they wish to search, dropping them either from the air or while on the ground. Then a soldier would conduct the equivalent of what the oil industry calls "thumping." Within the area rigged with sensors, a soldier would shoot a rifle at a small metal plate on the ground, causing reverberations anywhere from 20 to 200 feet into the ground.

The sensors would measure those reverberations and send data to supercomputers housed in an office or, as they continue to shrink in size, on the back of a Humvee, Temple said. Soldiers in the field would also have access to the supercomputer system remotely through laptops or PDAs (personal digital assistants) in the field.

Paul Temple
Paul Temple
SGI senior manager
for business development

The software would automatically flag anything unexpected--a cave under the Earth's surface, for instance--and prevent soldiers from having to synthesize complicated geophysical data.

"On screen, they will be able to look at the data and go, holy crap, blow it up!" Temple said. "Or not blow it up. Again, it's up to them."

Aside from such tactical concerns, it would also be up to the military, Temple said, to set ethical guidelines for using the program.

Such federal contracts are nothing new for SGI, which according to Temple, does about 40 percent of all its business with the government. The company, however, has fallen on hard times of late. It reported a net loss of $76 million in the last fiscal year and has seen shares of its stock hover below the dollar mark for a good part of this year.

The target identification concept secured congressional funding in last year's Defense Appropriations Act and has been endorsed by U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., who said in a statement that the project "directly supports our military in its fight against global terrorism."