Supercomputer hopes to say Gotcha to future terrorists

Early during World War II, German U-boats operating in the North Atlantic decimated allied shipping until a Dayton engineer helped design a fleet of computing machines that deciphered coded Nazi communications faster than the U-boat commanders could themselves. Dr. Michael Minardi uses a touch screen to demonstrate synthetic aperture radar imagery captured during a test of the Gotcha radar system over Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. Air Force Research Laboratory researchers are developing Gotcha with the aid of a supercomputer that will translate in real time raw radar data into high-resolution 3-dimensional images. Gotcha is one of portfolio of research efforts to provide enhanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities to future joint warfighters. Dr. Minardi is Gotcha program manager with AFRL's Sensors Directorate. (Air Force photo/Charles Abruzzino)

Today, the U.S. and its allies face a similar challenge from an enemy that often strikes from the shadows at a time and place of its choosing, said Dr. David Jerome, director of the Air Force Research Laboratory Sensors Directorate.

"To unravel their networks and defeat this enemy we must watch over entire cities, day and night, in all weather conditions," Dr. Jerome said.

The Gotcha radar is being developed by AFRL engineers to meet that challenge and to provide future joint warfighters with an unblinking eye over areas of interest.

But the massive amounts of raw data collected by Gotcha's synthetic aperture radar requires immense computing power to translate its city-sized stare into 3D images, zoom into areas of interest, observe minute scenery changes and track moving vehicles in complex urban environments.

That's where "Desch" comes into play. It is an SGI Altix ICE 8200 supercomputer, optimized to make sense of terabytes of streaming data in real-time and turn that data into high resolution images that can help future intelligence analysts and military decision makers turn the tide against those whose aim is to create havoc.

The Desch computer is named after Joseph Desch, who led a highly classified project to develop early computational machines to analyze and decode Nazi Enigma encrypted messages.

Mr. Desch died in 1987, never revealing, even to his family, his highly successful but secret contributions to the allied war effort.

His daughter, Deborah Desch Anderson, was among the dignitaries on hand at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base Aug. 31 during a ceremony to inaugurate the Air Force's newest supercomputer.

"I don't think it's possible that any honor would fit him more," Ms. Desch said, referring to her father's intense curiosity of how complex machines work and the naming of a supercomputer dedicated to defense research in his memory.

Dr. Michael Minardi, program manager for the Gotcha radar, said the Desch supercomputer is analogous to the lens of a highly sophisticated camera.

"A camera takes a coherent light field and bends it through a series of curved glass lenses to create an image," Dr. Minardi said. "We've replaced the lens with a supercomputer which uses algorithms to mimic what a lens does in creating an image from Gotcha's raw radar data."

Gotcha was first successfully tested in 2006 with the radar staring at a 1 kilometer spot. By fall of 2010 Air Force researchers hope to demonstrate Gotcha's real-time and forensic analysis capabilities over a 5-kilometer city-sized circle.

Among a number of persistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities Gotcha researchers hope to highlight is the radar's change detection-based tracker, optimized to track targets in complex urban environments like vehicles which frequently stop and start.

One of Gotcha's advantages is the flexibility of its recorded radar data coupled with the supercomputer's blazing processing speed. The same set of data can be used to look for many different things just by changing the algorithms which the supercomputer processes, said 1st Lt. Curtis Casteel, an ISR engineer with AFRL's Sensors Directorate.

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