US developing wearable ‘RF weapon’ exposure sensor

US developing wearable ‘RF weapon’ exposure sensor

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The US Department of Defence (DoD) is looking to develop a low-cost, low-weight wearable directed pulse energy weapon sensor designed to detect and document exposure of personnel to injurious levels of radio frequency (RF) energy.
By Rich Pell

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The Wearable Radio Frequency Weapon Exposure Detector program comes in the wake of recent reports of alleged “microwave attacks” that are thought by some to potentially be the cause behind mysterious illnesses in US personnel, such as the widely reported symptoms experienxed by US embassy personnel in Cuba in 2016. The so-called “Havana Syndrome” reportedly caused such symptoms as headaches, loss of hearing and balance, and – in some cases – some form of “brain injuries.”

It is not at all clear that microwave attacks are behind these reported illnesses. Other theories suggest that ultrasonic signals, pesticides or infectious agents, or even a mass psychogenic illness – i.e., mass hysteria – could be the cause.

Still, notes the DoD, directed energy weapons – including RF weapons – are a growing threat on the battlefield. Detecting the use of such a weapon, however, is a challenge since determinants of RF weapon antipersonnel effects are “multifactorial” and RF injuries will be situation dependent and very hard to predict, and further aggravated by the transient nature of RF energy. Without a sensor, says the DoD, it is possible that no residual evidence of RF attack will be available.

“A wearable RF detector to signal and document exposure to injurious levels of RF energy will allow personnel to take timely and appropriate protective measures, enable confident diagnoses of RF exposure injury, and serve as a critical intelligence resource for defining current battlefield threats,” says the DoD. “However, to be useful, the wearable RF weapon exposure detector must, in order of importance, have an extremely small footprint in terms of space, weight and power (SWaP), be very low cost, have a very low false positive rate, and be easy to interpret.”

In Phase 1 of the program, the agency is looking to analyze RF bioeffects in relation to common US and ally military RF equipment and potential enemy weapon system emission levels and frequencies, with the spectrum of interest including IEEE UHF through Ka bands. Then an optimal detector threshold sensitivity for signaling immediately dangerous-to-life and health (IDLH) exposure needs to be determined while minimizing false positives.

“Because irradiance levels needed to injure personnel are orders of magnitude higher than required to damage electronics, designing a broad band absorber with appropriate response characteristic will require substantial innovation,” says the agency. “Integration of an antenna into an affordable system which will survive in the extreme irradiance environment is a significant challenge, therefore the offeror may need to identify novel broad band RF detection materials and alarm/signaling mechanisms.”

Phase II of the program will be to develop and test sensor components. This would involver modeling expected system performance from component testing and then integrating components into a breadboard/brassboard level prototype and compare measured performance against modeled predictions. Refining the design, building production representative prototypes, and validating detection performance in laboratory environment would follow, with prototypes provided for operational utility evaluations.

In Phase III, dual-use applications will be explored, as it is expected that a wearable RF weapon detector will be generally useful for a wide variety of military operations if there is a proliferation of RF weapons.

“[The] desired end state.” says the agency, “would be to establish the Wearable RF Weapon Detector as a standard military equipment supply item distributed through Defense Logistics Agency. Additional commercial applications include medical, industrial, manufacturing, and test facilities in which personnel may be inadvertently exposed to high power RF sources.”

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