Defense Advanced Research Projects AgencyTagged Content List

Novel Sensing and Detection

Novel concepts and devices capable of detecting and monitoring physical phenomena

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Before DARPA was established, a President’s Science Advisory Committee panel and other experts had concluded that reliable ballistic missile defense (BMD) and space surveillance technologies would require the ability to detect, track, and identify a large number of objects moving at very high speeds. Responding to these needs, DARPA in 1959 initiated a competition for the design and construction of a large, experimental two-dimensional phased array with beam steering under computer control rather than requiring mechanical motion of the antenna.

Known as the Electronically Steered Array Radar (ESAR) Program, the focus of the effort was to develop low-cost, high-power tubes and phase shifters, extend component frequency ranges, increase bandwidth, apply digital techniques, and study antenna coupling. DARPA pioneered the construction of ground-based phased array radars such as the FPS-85. This radar system had a range of several thousand miles and could detect, track, identify, and catalog Earth-orbiting objects and ballistic missiles. The FPS-85 quickly became part of the Air Force SPACETRACK system and was in operation from 1962 until the SPACETRACK unit was deactivated in early 1967.

From 1973 to 1980, DARPA funded efforts that reduced to practice a totally new concept for obtaining infrared (IR) images of targets. In Desert Strom, warfighters use such imagers to locate tanks and other military equipment buried in the sand. To continue to advance the technology, DARPA funded R&D for a new generation of IR imagers in the mid-90’s.
The goal of the SIGMA program, which began in 2014, was to develop and test low-cost, high-efficiency radiation sensors that detect gamma and neutron radiation and to network them via smartphones. This would a distributed detection network that would provide city, state, and federal officials with real-time awareness of potential nuclear and radiological threats such as dirty bombs, which combine conventional explosives and radioactive material to increase their disruptive potential.
At a mountaintop event in New Mexico on October 18, 2016, DARPA handed off ownership its Space Surveillance Telescope (SST) from an Agency-led design and construction program to ownership and operation by U.S. Air Force Space Command (AFSPC), which operate the telescope in Australia jointly with the Australian government.
DARPA proved that practical, uncooled infrared detector technology was possible under the Low Cost, Uncooled Sensor Program (LOCUSP) of the late 1980’s. Previous generations of IR sensors used cryogenics to cool the detector materials and reduce system noise. Although these steps proved to be effective – these earlier systems were credited with being a major factor in the U.S. ground victory in Desert Strom, for example – the sensors were costly to develop, prohibiting widespread distribution to combat troops. Under the LOCUSP program, cost-effective, uncooled IR detector technology was developed, fabricated, and demonstrated for use across various military applications. In 1991, the Uncooled Focal Plane Arrays (UCFPA) project was started under the Balanced Technology Initiative to create practical applications of DARPA’s research into uncooled sensor arrays. Under this effort, uncooled focal plane arrays were advanced for applications such as surveillance systems for perimeter defense and weapon sights.