Tech forecast: warming, chance of LightSpeed

A glimpse of the future of law enforcement tools can be seen on a street named High Bluff Drive in the coastal suburbs of northern San Diego, where a couple of novel technologies called LightSpeed are emerging from a small start-up company.

The company, Torrey Pines Logic, was established to provide a variety of defense-related electronic technologies, including systems for optical voice and data communication, automatic mosaic and geo-registration, optical detection, temporal processing and thermal imaging.

But two TPL products may one day be found in local police department equipment lockers. One TPL technology is a clever new binocular system that not only allows the user to see better, but also provides full-duplex, non-radio-wave voice communication designed to be used when conventional radio traffic is either impossible or inadvisable. The second technology is wiretap on steroids, a radical new tool that raises the clandestine surveillance bar far beyond current capabilities.

Wiretap on steroids

You may have to stand on the bumper and squint into the distant haze to make out the form of the TPL surveillance gadget. It's still in development and not all of it has emerged from the lab bench. But when completed, the device, currently called the LightSpeed Projectile, promises a unique James Bond surveillance technology.

This device is a bullet-sized casing in which is housed a miniature camera, a miniature microphone, and a suite of other miniature sensors that can be fired or positioned in a building in order to achieve long-distance, clandestine surveillance.

Everything about the idea is small, except its potential. This concept moves contemporary passive wire-tapping or e-mail interception into the next century.

"This product allows a user to position a sensor somewhere where you either do not have access or that access is undesirable," says Leo Volfson, Torrey Pines Logic's founder and president. "Using this projectile, you can position cameras, microphones, and all kinds of other small sensors."

Volfson develops most of his concepts for army and navy applications, but there is nothing preventing law enforcement from one day enjoying the advantages of his cutting edge ideas. Right now, Volfson sees the projectile mostly being used by military and special operations.

"Law enforcement applications are clear to us, but we have to wait until we put it into play," he says.

Volfson says once development, testing and prototyping of the LightSpeed Projectile is finished both the military and domestic police will have a unique new tool in their surveillance arsenals.

"Ultimately, you will be able to fire a 25mm or 40mm round that will stick to the wall at distances of 200 meters to 300 meters and then receive a stream of data in return, including video, audio and information from a variety of other sensors," Volfson says. Instead of a round at the head of the shell casing, the LightSpeed projectile has a "sticky front." This material does not penetrate or destroy the target surface — it absorbs the shock of impact so the sensors, camera, microphone, and transmitter remain undamaged and adhere to the surface. Currently, the battery-operated electronics will perform for up to 30 minutes.

Tactically, that means police marksmen could fire the projectile into a structure or setting where a crime is suspected or still developing, such as a hostage situation, probable drug processing lab, or into a vehicle during a high-speed chase, then eavesdrop from a comfortably safe distance.

Law enforcement customers will have to wait a bit to examine or test the device. Currently, there are some packaging issues that need resolution from a manufacturing perspective, and Volfson is working with several military clients who have their own requirements.

"Once we work through those and deliver working prototypes we will move to production discussions," he says.

The eyes have it

Volfson is already in production with his LightSpeed binocular system, which mimics a radio like you've never seen it before. The LightSpeed binocular is more than visual tool; it's also a communication device that attaches to handheld field glasses to enable users to see, speak to each other, and transmit data across distances of up to 2 or 3 kilometers. It might seem like James Bond fiction, but now a pair of undercover law enforcement officers on opposite rooftops, in different areas of high rise buildings, or in different sections of sports venues can exchange voice and data via special binoculars. The U.S. military is currently using the LightSpeed binoculars equipped with USB and Ethernet adapters and receivers, providing a means of achieving secure voice and video communication.

Users must wear a headset and talk into an attached microphone while they peer into the binoculars. Aside from binoculars, the system attaches easily to any optical device, such as rifle scopes and unmanned aerial vehicles.

"Since there is no radio frequency communication involved, this device is hard to detect and intercept," Volfson says. No radio frequency also means no FCC licensing is required.

The technology behind the device is based on infrared light-emitting diode (LED) free-space optics. Free-space optics (FSO) provides the ability to pass data between two points through the atmosphere via an optical beam to achieve broadband communications. The theory of FSO is essentially the same as that for fiber optic transmission. The difference is that the energy beam is collimated and sent through clear air from the source to the destination, rather than guided through an optical fiber.

Usually, laser beams are used, although non-lasing sources such as LEDs or infrared-emitting diodes (IREDs) can be used, making the system as safe for the human eye as the beams generated by television remote control units.

"The binocular has an attachment that fits over the ocular side that produces a beam that comes out of the right eye of the binocular," Volfson says.

On the left side is a receiver. "If you look at me and I look at you, we'll be able to talk or send information," he says.

The downside of the FSO technology is transmission of data through the atmosphere tends to limit the range and effectiveness of any FSO system. When light is transmitted through a gaseous media, such as air, some of the radiated power is lost to scattering by molecules or absorption. To overcome these range limitations, LightSpeed connects to ordinary binoculars and uses the optical lenses to amplify the signals. Range is therefore determined by the strength of the optics.

Sharper image

Volfson says by using eye-safe LEDs for data transmission along with the innovative use of optics, the technology can be incorporated into any binocular system, permitting simultaneous data and voice communication, as well as visual contact.

The latest generation LightSpeed, the B20 model, is built on the award-winning Geovid 8x56 BRF binocular platform by Leica. The system allows communication between units at distances up to 2.5 km (1.5 miles). By plugging in either supplied or commercial off-the-shelf headsets, the B20 provides full duplex voice communication of up to 64Kbps. The unit also functions as a network link to a remote device or to another system via USB network connection. Data transfer rates of up to 2Mbps are available. The unit requires 2.5W of power, supplied either from three AA batteries or 5V DC.

Video output from the LightSpeed system in either color or black and white is available for recording purposes.

Another model, the LightSpeed G10, incorporates FSO technology in a gun scope mounting package, meaning snipers and sharpshooters can have the same capabilities as users of the B20 binocular model, although the G10 has a somewhat longer range. It's effective at distance over 3km.

The LightSpeed binocular system is currently being used by the U.S. military's Special Operations Command. Not only is LightSpeed useful in theaters of war, there are a number of domestic law enforcement settings in which the unit could come in handy.

"In cases where law enforcement needs to have a communication technology that cannot be intercepted or detected, this is it," Volfson says. Unlike radio-wave transmissions, data transfer through the LED beam is undetectable.

Volfson says there are many law enforcement applications, including basic explosive ordnance disposal, where you might need to communicate but cannot use conventional radio waves, since conventional radio waves could trigger the explosive. In less critical situations, Volfson sees LightSpeed being used in places like airports, where conflicting signals from planes can interfere with ground-based radio.

Another law enforcement application for the LightSpeed binocular communication system could be in disaster situations. "The classic example is Katrina," Volfson says. "All other forms of communication went down and were unavailable."

Volfson continues to peer into the future from his High Bluff laboratory. Although much work is required, Volfson says FSO technologies could be adapted to tactical vehicular applications, where it would provide a reliable inter-vehicle communication link under a variety of field conditions.

California-based freelance writer Douglas Page can be reached