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Using Radar Signals to Safeguard Our Troops

March 15, 2011

By Tina Cipara

Kenneth HintzThe humanitarian consequences of war are often easily forgotten but fortunately not by everyone. Former naval aviator and Mason electrical engineer Kenneth Hintz has spent the past four years developing a technology that aims to make the world a safer place. As the inventor of the Syntactic Landmine Detector and Target Classifier, Hintz has dedicated his research to the efficient detection of landmines and, ultimately, to the safety of military personnel and civilians around the world.

“Landmines are one of the largest causes of casualties to active military in combat and are a lingering threat to civilians even after armed conflict has ceased,” says Hintz. “Landmines are difficult to find, ubiquitous, and emplaced faster than they
are removed.”

While the locations of landmines are often forgotten, even by those who planted them in the first place, they remain active for many decades. There are a number of systems dedicated to landmine detection; however, none can match the technology developed by Hintz and his team.

Existing ground-penetrating radar approaches to landmine detection are primarily implemented using anomaly detection, in which the signal processor observes deviations from the normal background to determine whether a landmine is present. In contrast, Hintz’s detector is able to not only detect but also distinguish between a simple anomaly in the ground and a functioning landmine.

“A special-purpose ground-penetrating radar uses reflections from changes in material to characterize landmines as strings of ones and zeros that act much like a word in a language,” says Hintz. “Once this string is produced, a complex, but fast, simple, language recognizer is used to differentiate between the unique pattern of landmines and other objects in the ground.”

U.S. Army Spc. Ethan Stall, with the explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) team from the 707th EOD Company, inspects a field for possible improvised explosive devices and landmines in Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. J.T. May III/Released)

Other detection systems have a hard time telling the difference between a coffee mug and a landmine. The Syntactic Landmine Detector not only would be able to do so, but it also would be able to indicate the type. This level of detail is helpful both in streamlining the identification process and the procedures for removal.

Supported by a $1.1 million grant from the Office of Naval Research, Hintz and his coprincipal investigator, Mason bioengineer Nathalia Peixoto, continue to further test and enhance the landmine detection system, for which Hintz recently received a patent.

Landmine detection is just one of the projects on which Hintz is working. He recently received another grant from the Office of Naval Research to address problems with current sniper detection technologies.

“Our goal is to develop methods for analyzing radar signals to detect the presence of a sniper before he fires his first shot,” says Hintz. “Our research is important because it will reduce casualties among our military. It also has civilian security implications in that it will be capable of detecting individual shooters in crowds.”

The fundamental advantage of the preshot sniper detection system lies within its design. Unlike most sniper detection technologies, this system relies
on radar signals as opposed to optical or acoustic sensors, which can only identify a sniper after shooting.

“We have two complementary approaches to processing the radar signals for sniper detection,” Hintz says. “The first is much like our processing of ground-penetrating radar signals for landmine detection in that the rifle produces an identifiable characteristic string that we can detect using syntactic pattern recognition. Our second method is based on modifications of the radar signal that are induced by the interaction of the signal with the rifle barrel itself.”

By processing the interaction of the signal with the rifle barrel, the system is able to measure and appropriately identify the weapon in question. Identifying the weapon is vital to understanding the weapon’s power and maximum range and could very well mean the difference between eliminating the sniper and suffering a casualty.

Although both the landmine detection and preshot sniper detection systems have obvious benefits for the safety of our troops, bringing technologies to market is often complex and labor intensive. As the holder of 13 patents and a board member of the George Mason Intellectual Property Foundation, Hintz is familiar with the process.

To bring these life-saving technologies to market faster, Hintz has teamed up with Mason entrepreneur-in-residence Jim Wolfe. The result of this collaboration has been the creation of a new company, FirstGuard Technologies.

Though the company is still in its early stages of development, it is moving quickly toward the effort of creating a safer world. With the help of the Office of Technology Transfer at Mason, FirstGuard Technologies has already entered license agreements for both detection systems developed by Hintz and his team.

“The mission of FirstGuard Technologies is to protect our protectors,” says Wolfe, who is on the faculty of Mason’s School of Management. “We provide new technology systems and products to enhance safety and security for the people who work to enhance ours—military personnel, police forces, first responders. We turn the latest patents and inventions into breakthrough field applications to safeguard personnel and improve mission success for our customers.”

“Landmines are one of the largest causes of casualties to active military in combat and are a lingering threat to civilians even after armed conflict has ceased.”


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