Forgot your password?
typodupeerror
Communications The Military

Chemical "Infofuses" Communicate Without Electricity 115

Posted by kdawson
from the can-you-see-me-now dept.
Al writes "Researchers at Harvard and Tufts University have developed a way to send coded messages without using electricity. David Walt, professor of chemistry at Tufts, and Harvard's George Whitesides have developed 'infofuses' that can transmit information simply by burning. The fuses — metallic salts depositing on a nitrocellulose strand — emit pulses of infrared and visible light of different colors whose sequence encodes information. They were developed in response to a call from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency for technologies to allow soldiers stranded without a power source to communicate. In the first demonstration of the idea, they used the infofuses to transmit the message look mom no electricity." Currently the researchers are "trying to figure out a way to dynamically encode a message on the fly in the field without specialized equipment."
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

Chemical "Infofuses" Communicate Without Electricity

Comments Filter:
  • by Red Flayer (890720) on Tuesday May 26, 2009 @05:28PM (#28101141) Journal
    Smoke signals... in color.

    Morse code... without electricity.

    In order to communicate effectively without electricity, it makes sense to look back to the time before electricity.

    As for coding-messages-on-the-fly for the flare o' many colors, what kind of data density are they looking for? Wafers of colored fuel could be dropped into a tube that is then sealed for burning.

    Or, they could just figure out a way to send morse code with a flare... maybe some kind of retractable hood to be used as an interrupt?
    • in the end, why would a hand cranked flashlight not be better. maybe one of the shake up ones.

      • by Red Flayer (890720) on Tuesday May 26, 2009 @06:08PM (#28101603) Journal
        Well, after I RTFA (sacrilege, I know), the point would seem to be data density. The signals are read by a CCD, not by a human interpreter, though I'm sure there is decent software out their for parsing morse code. It takes a while to send morse code signals if you're not in good practice, and the whole time you're sending the signal you're vulnerable. So the signal "fuse" has the advantage of transmitting an encoded message faster than most people using morse code could.

        It's odd that the receiver is expected to have electricity, but not the sender... I really wonder about the utility if the electricity requirement is still there for one party.
        • by sortius_nod (1080919) on Tuesday May 26, 2009 @06:42PM (#28101969) Homepage

          This is the same thing I was thinking of. Is it really any use as the receiver needs to have at least a camera and laptop, or some specialised decoder device to even make this usable.

          While the technology seems neat, it also seems a bit more like a weekend project of someone with an inkjet printer and some chemicals. Did it really require funding from DARPA? I'd hazard a guess and say "no".

          • This is the same thing I was thinking of. Is it really any use as the receiver needs to have at least a camera and laptop, or some specialised decoder device to even make this usable.

            While the technology seems neat, it also seems a bit more like a weekend project of someone with an inkjet printer and some chemicals. Did it really require funding from DARPA? I'd hazard a guess and say "no".

            I'd say that since it wasn't done before DARPA funded it, the answer would be "yes".

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by TubeSteak (669689)

          It's odd that the receiver is expected to have electricity, but not the sender... I really wonder about the utility if the electricity requirement is still there for one party.

          You can do a lot with drones nowadays.
          And I can't imagine they'd use anything else since the max range they expect is 1.5km

        • by mikael (484) on Tuesday May 26, 2009 @07:53PM (#28102859)

          I guess if they have a airman down in hostile territory with the enemy having access to frequency monitoring equipment, how does the person transmit his coordinates without broadcasting anything.

          Reminds me of those experiments that we used to to do in cub scouts - sticking a small mirror onto a thin sheet of clingfilm and watching how sound waves changed the direction of reflected light - to demonstrate how sound was just air moving rapidly.

        • by goombah99 (560566)

          if you have a hand cranked battery you don't need to send hand pulsed morse. You could have interface to let you key it in ahead of time then transmit it in a burst. Such an interface could in fact be a single button. You morse code it in slowly, then it time compresses it to a rapid modulation of the light. repeats it many times, etc... give it's powered now you might even be able to implement a receiver.

        • by mrmeval (662166)

          Some flashlights can signal satellites. I've made fuse and pulsed some flash powder mixture which should be even more intense. I think their idea is pretty cool and even something simple like SOS would be of use.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by nizo (81281) *

      How about an inexpensive crank flashlight with a morse code key engraved on it?

      On the upside, not only would you not need matches, but you could use it as a flashlight.

      • hahaha

        This is the military.

        Scratch out 'cheap' and/or 'inexpensive'.

        Personally, something small like a lighter might be better than matches (get wet, quite susceptible to weather, don't last long [individually]) or a hand-powered flashlight (a lot bulkier).

        Now, the flashlight certainly would have more uses in general, but it's all about tradeoffs, as there is a physical limit to how much crap a person can carry in the field.

    • by nospam007 (722110) *

      "In order to communicate effectively without electricity, it makes sense to look back to the time before electricity."

      Even now there are still railways that give their trains every signal with mechanical means.

      P.S. Not to mention, even the most sophisticated aircraft gets hand signals at the very end before you get out.

      • Even now there are still railways that give their trains every signal with mechanical means.

        Including pyrotechnical devices not completely unlike the one in TFA. As a last resort/backup method, train crews can lay things called torpedoes on the track. They explode when a train runs over them giving the engineer a warning that there's danger ahead. Most railroads have a distinctive pattern they use when setting the torpedoes to avoid false signals from backfires, firecrackers etc.

    • Ahmed, where is the stranded soldier hiding? And what the hell is that colored flashing light on the side of this hill?
      • Couldn't you have 10 minute fuse before the coloured flare/IR signal starts burning? i.e. you could set it up with requested pickup coordinates, stake the flare down in some open ground and move away from the immediate area. A searching enemy would only know where you were 10 minutes ago (admittedly, in a life and death search 10 minutes is a bit close for comfort)
  • by kpainter (901021) on Tuesday May 26, 2009 @05:30PM (#28101147)
    DARPA researchers discover messages can be transmitted using nothing more than a simple mirror.
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by youn (1516637)

      In other news... IBM Creates a reflection group to adopt SmokeSignalXML 2.0 standard and geek adapts system to read slashdot via a new nifty system called FireRSS. A Native American signal artisans reflect about his doubts of the new system, "It's like the old smoke system... except you have to use an inkjet printer to encode the message... you also need a power supply to print the stuff... you might as well use a flash light"

      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by Dishevel (1105119) *
        Soon after...

        Microsoft announces "Support" for the SmokeSignalXML 2.0 standard in IE 12.3

        Microsofts version of the standard isn't quite fully standard compliant but is touting itself to be "Better than the standard." Microsoft has also announced that The full office suite is moving to the new MS / SmokeSignalXML 2.0 standard and that windows 9 will now use it in all its apps even notepad.

  • by Baby Duck (176251) on Tuesday May 26, 2009 @05:31PM (#28101159) Homepage
    One if by land, two if by sea
  • cause... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Random2 (1412773) on Tuesday May 26, 2009 @05:33PM (#28101197) Journal
    cause, you know...sending smoke signals when stranded in enemy territory is really going to help you....
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by rbrausse (1319883)

      depends. a mushroom cloud keeps foes away.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by Jurily (900488)

        depends. a mushroom cloud keeps foes away.

        Reminds me what my mentor said about a heart surgery he had: "Under certain circumstances that's a good thing, but only if you do it to others."

  • Aren't smoke signals and flashing light based communication inferior to electricity? How would you encode a message into a fuse without the use of some electrical device? Wouldn't that mean they have to be pre-determined messages before put into the field? I'm sure I'm just not understanding the full symantics of how these things work. I mean, I thought the whole "Fire the Green Flares!" thing has worked pretty well when people don't have a radio.
    • From the picture accompaning the article, it looks like what they've done is taken a cord and soaked different parts of it in different chemicals, so that as it burned it gave off different colors. I can picture some sort of labelmaker device that spits out chem-coded lengths of fuse for creating arbitrary messages. It would'nt be all that hard.
    • by nospam007 (722110) *

      The Romans had no problems to send either "need more garum" or anything else a couple of thousand years ago with their signal towers.

      • by RockDoctor (15477)

        The Romans had no problems to send either "need more garum" or anything else a couple of thousand years ago with their signal towers.

        I think that you're conflating two reasonably well-known facts : the circa 1810 optical telegraph networks that were built in various parts of Europe (and ISTR, at least one in the NE USA ; but since they rather rely on large areas with significant population density, they'd be more incidental maintenance costs there) ; and the well-known ingenuity of the Romans.

        I could perfec

  • Weird (Score:5, Interesting)

    by pete-classic (75983) <hutnick@gmail.com> on Tuesday May 26, 2009 @05:37PM (#28101225) Homepage Journal

    Step 1, smoke a cigarette under a poncho. Step 2, light an "infofuse". Step 3, get shot in the face.

    My Drill Sargent demonstrated how easy it is to spot someone smoking in the dark.

    Is a crank-powered radio really out of the question? I mean, it would even work during the day.

    -Peter

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Blakey Rat (99501)

      They're planning for an invasion of the Waverlies, I guess.

    • by drinkypoo (153816)

      My Drill Sargent demonstrated how easy it is to spot someone smoking in the dark.

      But apparently not how to spell sergeant.

      Is a crank-powered radio really out of the question? I mean, it would even work during the day.

      You mean, enemy midges could home in on it even during the day? That's true.

      The truth is, it's all bad. But the flare is not even a bad solution. Light fuse, step away.

      • I must have had K.P. on spelling day.

        As for "stepping away", that's a fine defense against snipers. Until they launch a parachute flare. Or start firing machine guns, grenade launchers, mortars, or call in any indirect fire on your position. At which point you're going to have to unass the AO, which probably invalidates the message that gave away your position in the first place.

        When out-gunned, there's just no substitute for maintaining cover and concealment.

        -Peter

  • just talk to one another? I can communicate by talking and listening without needing electricity (unless you count synapse firings).

    Oh, I see the article says "greater than 2 km." The US Navy still uses semaphores, and a (non-electric) lantern could be used for nighttime signaling. Duh. Where's my million dollar research grant?
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      Using existing technologies in existing ways is not research. Using new technologies in existing ways is. I'm a big supporter of research for the sake of research and science for the sake of science. Would you really have wanted DARPA to cancel the arpnet, because the application they had in mind assumed the use of nuclear weapons?

      Note: I think that may or may not be the case that the arpnet was sold as a means for communications to survive in the event of a nuclear strike. but anyway you get the point I'
  • by Anonymous Coward

    DARPA keeps reinventing the wheel. Isn't it simpler to use a portable hand cranked generator to power a normal radio using spread spectrum communications? Using spread spectrum gives reasonable safety level and hand cranked generator is power source which works as long as you have hands. This solution is so obvious, that it amazes me why DARPA would even think of something else.

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward
      I'm a handless soldier you insensitive clod!
      • I rather meant that the crank handle would be rather useless if you hands are injured, blown or like. But then you can grab the crank handle with your teeth. Other solution would be building a damn cool RFID embedded into the dog tag. It could be read from a an overflying aircraft. RFIDs can be be actually designed to be read from decent distance. Of course the RFID has very limited power, so encryption would be weak.
        • Any RFID tag that can pump out a signal big enough to be seen by an overflying aircraft, is a nice beacon which can be used to radio-locate your soldier's chest. Snipers are sure to love this idea! Oh wait, this is bad.
          • by koona (920057)

            We are geniui: An RFID tag in the dogtag, that can pump out a signal big enough to be seen by an overflying aircraft BUT...with a set of contacts to short out, to activate a pre coded burst of info..

            You first saw it right here.

  • by Vellmont (569020) on Tuesday May 26, 2009 @05:51PM (#28101389)

    So it only transmits 2 km, and presumably someone has to be looking in the right direction to receive your signal, and you need some kind of special equipment to encode a long message. This just looks like the wrong approach. It seems to me there's always a trade-off between distance, information transmitted, and signal power (a rough restating of Shannon/Hartley). I don't know how far flares can be seen, but that's already a chemical means of sending a short message a limited distance.

    One thing that might be interesting, the ability to produce a powerful radio signal by some chemical means. You wouldn't be able to transmit much information beyond say "help!", but if you had a satellite in geo-stationary orbit looking for these signals (and somehow triangulating the position) that might solve the "has to be someone looking" problem. Whether there are chemical reactions that produce radio signals, I have no idea.

    • by camperdave (969942) on Tuesday May 26, 2009 @06:00PM (#28101513) Journal
      One thing that might be interesting, the ability to produce a powerful radio signal by some chemical means.

      It's called a battery. You hook it up to your walkie-talkie, and away you go.
      • by Vellmont (569020)


        It's called a battery. You hook it up to your walkie-talkie, and away you go.

        Which involves electronics, which DARPA specifically didn't want.

        • Which involves electronics, which DARPA specifically didn't want.

          Remind me again: How are they decoding this signal? I'm pretty sure I saw mention of a CCD [wikipedia.org].

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by ColdWetDog (752185)

      One thing that might be interesting, the ability to produce a powerful radio signal by some chemical means

      Like a battery? Nope, never gonna happen. Too complex and dangerous.

    • How many people responding have actually performed tactical miltary maneuvers in the field? Because, if you haven't, it would explain a lot of the silly comments of the kind, "...someone has to be looking in the right direction...blah...blah...blah..."
    • by ceoyoyo (59147)

      Purely chemical... no, sorry, can't think of one. Would you settle for nuclear?

    • Whether there are chemical reactions that produce radio signals, I have no idea.

      If you can pump a laser chemically [wikipedia.org], I'd expect that it would be possible to do the same with a maser [wikipedia.org].

  • You give each soldier a set of (fertile) chicken eggs, wrapped in bubble wrap.

    When they want to send a message, they hatch an egg, and then tie the message to one of the chicken's legs before sending it flying back to base (I forgot to say they are also issued a catapult)

    Probably no less plausible an approach than these "infofuses".

    • by oodaloop (1229816)
      Shit, if you're going to catapult the chick back, why don't you just catapult the soldier back so he can tell the commander himself?
    • Re: (Score:1, Troll)

      by Locke2005 (849178)
      I see several flaws with this scenario: 1) Chicken's can't fly. 2) Even homing pigeons can't return to somewhere they've never been before, and 3) the hatched chicks would be dinner for someone long before they matured to the point where they could carry a message. I've got a much better scheme: Use 2 parabolic acoustical reflectors pointed directly at each other. One person speaks at the focal point of one reflector, while the other listens at the focal point of the other. Works for 2 way communication. On
      • I see several flaws with this scenario:

        Wow. Nothing gets by you. You're like Dwight Howard, James Harrison, Martin Brodeur, Johnny Bench, and an East German Guard all rolled into one amazing nothing-gets-by-me package.

        Wise Heroes Offer Options Only Obtuse Obstinate Slashdotters Hate.

  • Hmm. Infrared and visible-light pulses. No electricity. Needs to have a message encoded on-the-fly in the field. That sounds an awful lot like a small lantern with an oil wick or candle burning in it and a shutter to conceal or reveal the light/heat source at will. We could even use Morse code. All you'd need is an ignition source to light the lamp. Matches would work, or steel-and-flint to light a small piece of tinder scavenged from the surroundings.

    • The new "infofuse" satisfies the militaries desire to replace emergency Morse code lamps which are considered unfit for military use in that they are neither extremely expensive, awkward to use or proprietary.

      The new equipment is expected to be welcomed by troops later this year when it will issued along with the militaries new grid based individual communication radios or gbicr's for short.

      The 50 billion dollar gbicr system will allow an individual soldiers to communicate with any other soldier by simply p

  • Sent message "x" (Score:3, Insightful)

    by noidentity (188756) on Tuesday May 26, 2009 @05:58PM (#28101491)

    In the first demonstration of the idea, they used the infofuses to transmit the message "look mom no electricity".

    Said message could be sent with a single flash [wikipedia.org], if that's the only message they might send. The question is how many other possible messages they could have sent. For example, if they sent this as 7-bit ASCII, it'd be more impressive, though some kind of Huffman encoding [wikipedia.org] would be most appropriate.

    • If you're using a conventional camera as a receiver, you can probably send about three bits per flash -- red, green and blue present or absent. Multiply this by framerate, pad generously for synch issues and error correction, pick the right encoding, and maybe you could manage a few bytes per second. Maybe you could encode multiple levels per color, but I doubt it would be very reliable.

  • It's not much more than a new version of signal mirrors, heliograph, signal fires, etc. Even a minor power source (such as a hand operated generator) would allow a radio to outperform infofuses.

    The only reason I see for this item, is when you are someplace electricity doesn't work. Of course, then the sensor package used to read the infofuse signal would need power also, and be within 1.5km/0.9 miles. Guess it's not really that good in an EMP field.

    Of course, what about the gear to encode the message?
    • They could just give you a tube full of infofuses encoded with the letters of the alphabet, plus some specialized messages. Just picture the infofuse being like a twist tie. You would take the letters you need, twist them together end to end to form your word, and light it. Or better yet, a roll of blank infofuse tape, a magic marker that produces a different colored flame, and a morse code card. You write the morse code onto the tape using the magic marker, and light it. You could even have a marker t
      • by maxume (22995)

        There are more than 100 possible messages that could be sent by ordering 5 fuses to match a message from a book (perhaps twice, to make sure). Hopefully, that would be enough, and it be equal to the bulk required to spell out "Help!" using characters (well, discounting the paper, but that wouldn't have to be huge).

    • I see nothing wrong with handing them several small jars of powdered chemicals and a fine paintbrush. Just add whatever liquid is handy - spit would probably do in desert warfare, but other places might have water available. Paint your stripes on the infofuse any way you like. A small field manual (laminated business-card size) would probably be enough info to help a soldier transmit all kinds of messages.
  • Extra battery? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by archer, the (887288)

    Which would you rather add to your pack? A pound of flammable material, or a half-pound radio/battery with a half-pound hand-cranked generator?

    • by drinkypoo (153816)

      The half-pound battery CERTAINLY contains more energy than the (say) five fuses you'd need to carry to get 120 possible messages. (Remember, this is a prototype, but the military has been buying expensive batteries for years.) When a battery takes a bullet, you get rid of it really fucking quick, because they do have a tendency to burst into flame.

  • >Currently the researchers are "trying to figure out a way to dynamically encode a message on the fly in >the field without specialized equipment."

    What about semaphore flags, signal lanterns, smoke signals, mirrors, shouting real loud etc?

  • After glancing at the article, this idea came to mind: For field use, a sort of Vertical Typewriter in three pieces. The "writer" itself would be a vertical tube with little pushers filled with an amount of powder. Attaching to this tube at the bottom would be the message holder, where the bits of powder would rest. The third piece would be a tamper to tighten the whole thing up so it doesn't spill out. The message holders would have to be strong enough to hold the compressed power, but be "inconsequent

  • This doesn't seem like a significant improvement over, say, carrying a pencil or marker, some paper, and a flare. Write message on paper, strike flare, hold up paper, and hope the good guys have a pair of binoculars handy and happen to notice you.

    It seems like if you got into a situation where you couldn't use electronics but were close enough for someone else to see you and you didn't care if the enemy sees you, either, the set of messages would be pretty small. Probably mostly along the lines of, "OH SHIT

  • by SuperKendall (25149) on Tuesday May 26, 2009 @06:52PM (#28102075)

    You only need to have one preset message:

    "Enemy advancing on current position."

  • I'm pretty sure this signal could be jammed with a few wet branches and a match...
  • The only application where infofuses would actually outperform other forms of communication I can come up with is the transmission of a message from a location other than where the sender is located with little complication. Simply attach a normal long delay fuse to an infofuse atop a high structure such that it will light the infofuse at a predetermined time when someone will be looking. Essentially a data drop-off point. I can imagine several espionage scenarios where this could be useful. It would be mu
  • Pope | No Pope.
  • by PPH (736903)

    So lets say they've got all the other objections to this technology ironed out, like "why not a hand-cranked radio, or flashlight".

    Currently the researchers are "trying to figure out a way to dynamically encode a message on the fly in the field without specialized equipment."

    Simple. You hang this fuse up in a tree (or something) by both ends and then light one marked point along its length corresponding to some prearranged signal.

  • Tritium. There, solved the energy source problem for you.
  • We have discovered the sparkler!

  • IR does not make the flare invisible. IR scopes have been around since WWII and are readily available and dirt cheap now. What is visible to the good guys will be visible to the bad guys - and all the bad guys need to know is where you have found cover.

To err is human -- to blame it on a computer is even more so.

Working...