A frequent concern I have shared these past months is drones used as weapons - whether they are equipped with firearms or explosives. Security today is quite-often a two-dimensional affair, especially in outdoor arenas such as stadiums where a pat down and metal detector are typically used to ensure there aren't any dangerous items being brought in. When a third-dimension becomes available to criminals and terrorists, the situation quickly spirals in complexity.
The question civilized society has to ask is how do we prevent crime and terrorism as the threat evolves from 2D to 3D?
Enter SmartSenseCom Inc., a company in semi-stealth mode using ultra-sensitive microphones (PDF) to detect the electric motors associated with flying objects. These devices are are very small (see above), the size of a chubby stylus and were designed to detect sound in the noisy undersea world which submarines navigate today. I recently spoke with David Wells at the company who explained the company has been working on this problem for four years and they have developed an ultra-sensitive process which can be used for power and electrical measurement utilizing LED light, a mirror and six optical-fibers which convert any changes to electrical signals via Faraday principles and proprietary algorithms.
Light is shined onto a mirror and the back of it has a substrate which is selected for a specific type of measurement.
What this means in simpler language is an ultra-sensitive microphone which can detect signals between 1 Hz to 200 KHz. In perspective, humans generally can hear from 20 Hz to 20 KHz. The fact that these devices can hear beyond the audible human range is why scientists refer to them as vibration sensors and not microphones by the way. They can become part of more complex systems which "listen" for specific vibration "signatures." Everything has a signature such as the sole of your shoe hitting the carpet to the honk of a horn or even a cough.
In addition, the small microphone allows for listening arrays to be more accurate as they can be assembled in tighter configurations. For example, in an application where you are attempting to determine where a gunshot came from, having more-tightly packed sensors means a more accurate gauge of the gunshots origins.
To put this in perspective, a single GPS satellite cannot determine your location but three can. The more satellites, the potentially more accurate location detection you can attain.
These microphones can be tuned to listen for electric motors associated with drones. In fact, that is where I think the company might see the most mainstream interest. After all, police have already foiled a plan to deliver a bomb to a school and federal building via drone. I imagine many embassies and military bases worldwide will be natural targets as well.
Remember, that these devices don't have a heat signature and are likely undetectable by radar, meaning there needs to be a new technology to detect them.
In order to combat this threat, the company's solutions can take 2.4 million samples per second and moreover output a WAV file over Ethernet 50 microseconds after a measurement is taken. This means more accurate measurements which can be used to more quickly detect flying vehicles among other things.
The technology was taken out of the ocean to be used in the air but drone listening is just one of the many actual applications we might witness. The sensors can be placed in data centers listening for hard drive failures; they can be used to detect problems with rotating machinery, aircraft engines and used to aid the acoustic design of buildings.
Perhaps the most dramatic use of this technology is in the power market. According to Wells, we will likely have another major power outage in the next year. He cites a few reasons - one is power from renewable energy such as wind farms could potentially be out of phase with the electrical grid which could cause a chain reaction of transformers which could be knocked out. Moreover, solar flares have the potential to take out major transformers which could typically take up to 18-months to build. In the latter case there needs to be a working sensor which detects the flare and lifts the ground so it is floating in order to protect it from damage.
Wells comes from the communications space - most recently IP communications and he likens the power industry to the telecom space in 1983 where there was no monitoring, automation and the providers didn't care about making more money or even saving it. He thinks this will change and touts the companys' solutions as a way to more accurately measure power distribution - something he says could turn down one-third of coal fired plants in the US and save 10-20% on power delivery.
The company’s EPC Optical Power Monitoring System (PDF) (above) replaces typical current transformers (CTs) and potential transformers (PTs). These instrument transformers are used to measure current levels which are too high for traditional measuring instruments by providing a proportionally lower and more suitable amount. Typical CTs and PTs when they fail can cause power outages and potential explosions due to the fact that they use hydrocarbons for insulation. SmartSenseCom's Passive Optical Intelligent Distribution Transformer (PDF) (below) doesn’t suffer from these challenges and as a result is able to more accurately measure power distribution for both network and customer load monitoring.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the company's story is the link between submarines, drones, electrical and gunfire sensing. If my prediction of an evolving urban drone war continues to be true, solutions like those provided by SmartSenseCom will be prevalent. I expect we'll hear more from the company in the coming months and years.