The Pentagon is forging the next link in the kill chain—following an individual—with at least one high-priority research program. The Clandestine Tagging, Tracking and Locating initiative (abbreviated both as CTTL and TTL), which was conceived in 2003, is slated to get about $210 million in unclassified funding between 2008 and 2013 and may receive more than that from the black budget. “The global war on terrorism cannot be won without a Manhattan Project–like TTL program,” was how officials from the Defense Science Board, a civilian committee that advises the Pentagon, described the situation in a 2004 presentation, adding that “cost is not the issue.”
In a 2007 briefing, Doug Richardson, an official working in the Special Reconnaissance, Surveillance, and Exploitation program in Special Operations Command, said that the Pentagon wanted to use 14 different technologies for tagging and tracking targets such as people and vehicles. Tagging could involve marking targets with invisible biological paints or micromechanical sensors; tracking would mean monitoring those markers from a distance. Other schemes entailed capturing a person’s “thermal fingerprint” and then tracking him or her, perhaps from aircraft equipped with infrared sensors.
Perhaps the most advanced tagging concept is “smart dust,” clouds of “motes,” tiny micro-electromechanical sensors that can attach themselves to people or vehicles. Thousands of these sensors would be scattered at a time to increase the chance of at least one of them reaching its target. Kris Pister, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, was sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), the Pentagon’s R&D branch, more than a decade ago to work on smart dust and was able to create sensors the size of rice grains. In the beginning, he now says, he and his colleagues imagined “smart burrs” that could attach to a target’s clothing as he or she brushed by, or “smart fleas” that could jump onto their targets. Pister says that this kind of autonomous microsensor is probably still not feasible. In 2001, however, his group succeeded in scattering more-primitive smart-dust motes from a small aerial drone and using them to track vehicles. A single UAV could easily carry thousands of tags, he says.
Citing security concerns, the Pentagon declined to elaborate on its research on clandestine tracking. (When I asked Zachary Lemnios, the agency’s chief technology officer, about advances in tagging, tracking and locating, he mentioned only “recent successes” and “state-of-the-art results.”) Yet in the same 2007 briefing in which Richardson delivered the Pentagon’s wish list of tagging technologies, he said he expected some or all of them to go into service by 2009. Shortly before 2009 arrived, the Los Angeles Times reported that soldiers in Pakistan were using sensors mounted on Predator drones that could track individual combatants even inside buildings—a report that, if accurate, suggests that tagging technologies may now be deployed overseas.
It’s possible that intelligence officials were exaggerating capabilities in order to intimidate insurgents. But there are other clues that the Pentagon may have deployed more-advanced tracking technology than it has disclosed. Last year, the U.K. Guardian reported that the CIA had given Pakistani tribesmen “chips” to plant in the homes of insurgents, who would later be killed by CIA drone strikes. A subsequent report by NBC News revealed a videotaped confession of one tribesman who claimed to have placed the tiny chips in exchange for cash payments from the U.S.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.