New form of X-ray vision coming to consumers

Posted: Wednesday, June 14, 2000

WASHINGTON (AP) - Thought only cartoon superheros could see through walls to detect the villains?

New technology called ultra-wideband will soon allow mere mortals to detect objects buried underground and to build cars enhanced with sensors that help avoid collisions.

Ultra-wideband uses millions of narrow pulses each second to get an accurate reading of location and distance, opening the door for new applications in radar tracking, precise positioning and wireless communications.

The possibilities vary from short-range computer networking for homes to devices that determine the location of golfers on a course.

What regulators like even better is that ultra-wideband devices can work within frequencies already allocated for other radio services - helping to maximize this dwindling resource.

The Federal Communications Commission believes the technology is so promising that the agency has proposed allowing it to be used on an unlicensed basis.

``Because of improvements in technology, it is now time to take a look at making this service available to consumers, businesses and public safety providers,'' said FCC Chairman Kennard.

It could be a year or more before the FCC gives final clearance. First, government agencies and private groups are testing to make sure ultra-wideband can safely coexist with other services, like the Global Positioning System, the U.S.-built network of satellites for navigation.

Officials want to put to rest any concerns about interference and could require the technology to be used above very congested frequencies, said John Reed, senior engineer in the FCC's technical rules branch.

Still, the technology is being touted for its ability to harness a small amount of power very efficiently. Ultra-wideband devices can emit such little energy, that it could interfere no more ``than your laptop does with your TV,'' said Ralph Petroff, chief executive officer of Time Domain Corp., a Huntsville, Ala.-based company. The company is one of a handful that has received special government waivers to begin using the technology.

Time Domain already has developed some ultra-wideband products which allow law enforcement officials to detect motions through surfaces such as walls. That means firefighters could determine whether there are people inside a room before they knock down a door.

In Fairfax, Va., members of the local county rescue squad were able to see people still breathing under 12 feet of rubble using the devices after a building collapse, Petroff said.

Newer versions to be introduced in the fall will provide even clearer silhouettes.

Petroff says the chief benefit of ultra-wideband ``is the ability to create entirely new products that don't yet exist and entirely new industries.''

Indeed, a separate company has cropped up that intends to use ultra-wideband specifically for the golf industry, so that club owners can detect the location of golfers on a course and even see how quickly players move through the holes.

Zircon, a Silicon Valley company that also has a waiver to use ultra-wideband, currently makes handheld tools that can detect studs about an inch and a half behind a wall before consumers begin drilling. But ultra-wideband could scan to greater depths, possibly even providing a three-dimensional image of what's inside a slab of concrete, said Chuck Heger, the company's vice president of research and development.

Other potential uses include:

-A collision-avoidance sensor for cars so that when the vehicle starts to break, the radar can sense the speed of the deceleration. The air bag could then be deployed to the appropriate level.

-Networking high-speed Internet access, computer, cable or other services throughout the home without wires.

-Special radios that allow for covert secure communications between soldiers without being identified.

Reed even offered this ingenious application: a brewer could determine how much beer is in a vat without measuring the foam - something that most other tools don't allow.



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