MIT Lincoln Laboratory wins two R&D 100 Awards

Two technologies developed at MIT Lincoln Laboratory were among the 2013 choices for prestigious R&D 100 Awards. The Photoacoustic Sensing of Explosives system detects and discriminates trace amounts of explosives from significant standoff distances. The Structured Knowledge Space software and information system enables analysts to mine the vast store of intelligence reports available to government decision makers.

2013 R&D 100 logoThe R&D 100 Awards, given annually by R&D Magazine, recognize the 100 most technologically significant innovations introduced during the prior year. The winners are chosen from among hundreds of nominations by an independent panel of evaluators and the editors of R&D Magazine, an international journal for research scientists and engineers. During the 51 years of the award's presentation, winners have included a broad range of technologies developed by industrial enterprises, government laboratories, and university research facilities—for example, innovative phased array radar panels, biosensors, chemistry breakthroughs, and imaging systems. Such familiar inventions as the flashcube, halogen lamp, liquid crystal display, and high-definition television were past R&D 100 Award recipients.

Providing early warning of the presence of explosives

The Photoacoustic Sensing of Explosives (PHASE) sensor detects trace levels of explosives' residue deposited on common surfaces. This new technology exploits acoustic emissions resulting from the transmission of short ultraviolet (UV) pulses through the air into a region of interest. When the UV pulses encounter exposed residue from explosives, an acoustic signal is produced that can then be measured and detected by a second laser, in this case, a laser vibrometer. This use of laser vibrometry is the primary discovery that allows detection of trace residue as small as 200 nanograms per square centimeter (imagine the size of a partial fingerprint) from standoff distances ranging from 1 to 100 meters and in less than 1 millisecond. The second discovery—the existence of ultrasonic-photoacoustic signals that differ significantly from those of background materials, such as soil, concrete, cloth, metal, Plexiglas, and many others—enables PHASE to achieve good discrimination of explosive substances from benign materials.

Illustration of PHASE systemThe laser vibrometer unit housed on the Photoacoustic Sensing of Explosives (PHASE) system platform is shown with example photoacoustic signals of explosives and background material as measured by PHASE.

PHASE's multiple capabilities can provide wide-area, rapid screening of sites for early detection of concealed deadly threats from safe standoff distances. PHASE could offer security personnel more effective techniques for screening large public areas. In addition, the PHASE system is built from small components that require only common electrical power, making the system lightweight, portable to many locations, and easy enough to conceal for covert screening.

"The most important contribution of PHASE is its ability to detect trace explosives indicative of deadly threats from significant standoff compared to current practices that perform screening via contact or from less than a meter away," explains Robert Haupt, who, along with Drs. Charles Wynn and Leaf Jiang, led the development of PHASE. "This capability has significant potential for homeland security and may help reduce the number of terrible injuries and fatalities that have become more commonplace. We were really motivated to develop a capability that could help many people," Haupt says. Other members of the multidivisional PHASE team are Gregory Rowe, Dr. Napoleon Thantu, Francesca Lettang, Stephen Palmacci, Charles Cobbett, Rosalie Bucci, Dr. Sumanth Kaushik, Dr. Roderick Kunz, and Dr. Jae Kyung.

Enabling information extraction from a complex document database

The Structured Knowledge Space (SKS) software system was designed as a solution to the data problem faced by users of military and intelligence reporting: "How do we take advantage of the enormous amounts of information communicated daily through a wide variety of reporting venues?" SKS combines open-source technologies, custom-built software, and domain knowledge about the important entities in intelligence reporting to create a robust system that facilitates search over a document collection that had previously been largely unsearchable. SKS ingests, processes, and indexes operational and intelligence documents and extracts information for future retrieval, display, and analysis.

SKS conceptThe Structured Knowledge Space (SKS) concept. SKS creates structured metadata (essentially data about other data, e.g., source of the data, date data were collected, size of a data file) to improve the discovery and use of unstructured reports, i.e., reports such as Word documents or email that are not organized in a predefined model such as a database or table.

Prior to SKS's development, few options existed for search and discovery in military intelligence reporting. Even when documents were stored in centralized repositories, search capability was limited by the volume, diverse formats, and esoteric nature of the documents. Analytic functionality—such as searching by ingest date, clustering documents by content, and tracking word or phrase trends—allows SKS to help decision makers see connections between disparate information.

"SKS demonstrates the use of modern text retrieval and natural language processing tools to unlock the knowledge frozen in a large set of heterogeneous documents, including closed formats. This gives analysts faster insights and more timely information," says Delsey Sherrill, a principal developer of SKS. The core development team of Sherrill, Dr. Gary Condon, Benjamin Landon, Dr. Michael Yee, Jason Hepp, Dr. Richard Delanoy, and Dr. Jonathan Kurz was supported by a group of 29 technical staff members and technicians.

Lincoln Laboratory's past R&D 100 Award recipients

Since 2010, 13 other technologies developed at Lincoln Laboratory have garnered R&D 100 Awards. In 2012, the Lincoln Open Cryptographic Key Management Architecture, Route Availability Planning Tool, Wavelength Beam-Combining Fiber-Coupled Diode Laser, and Wide Field-of-View Curved Focal Plane Array were chosen as award winners. The Laboratory received awards in 2011 for the Airborne Ladar Imaging Research Testbed, Multifunction Phased Array Radar Panel, Parallel Vector Tile Optimizing Library, and Pathogen Analyzer for Threatening Environmental Releases (PANTHER) Bioaerosol Identification System. The Digital-Pixel Focal Plane Array, Geiger-Mode Avalanche Photodiode Detector Focal Plane Array, Miniaturized RF Four-Channel Receiver, Runway Status Light System, and Superconducting Nanowire Single-Photon Detector were award winners in 2010. In addition, Lincoln Laboratory received two earlier R&D 100 Awards: in 1998, jointly with Cyra Technologies and the Los Alamos National Laboratory for the Cyrax Portable, 3D Laser-Mapping and Imaging System, and in 1995, for the GPS-squitter technology that uses GPS position data for automatic dependent surveillance of aircraft.

On 7 November 2013, the R&D 100 Award winners will be honored at an exhibition and banquet held at the Renaissance Hotel in Orlando, Florida.

Posted July 2013

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