Navy Seeks to Miniaturize Biometric Gear

By Kimberly Johnson
The Navy plans to issue biometric-capable handheld computers that can help sailors quickly identify a terrorist suspect when they are searching enemy ships.

Some biometric systems already exist in the fleet but the Navy wants to scale down the devices so they can be carried more easily by sailors.

By 2011, the Navy plans to deploy a pocket-sized “identity dominant system.” Since 2005, the service’s “visit, board, search and seizure” teams have used biometric collection kits manufactured by Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.-based Cross Match Technologies. The kits, housed in a large Pelican case, include a laptop, a document scanner, a fingerprint scanner and a special camera that uses facial recognition technology to photograph persons-of-interest for matching.

“When our team goes over, it can collect biometrics and verify if the people they are collecting the biometrics on are in the database,” said James Hamblet, branch head for force protection of maritime interdiction and warfare systems in the Navy’s surface warfare directorate.

The current kits, which can weigh 20 pounds or more, are cumbersome, sailors have complained.
“These are very capable kits, but what the Navy would like to do now is try to make them more expeditionary and to expand the capability,” to include iris scanning, which is currently not available with the Cross Match system, said Hamblet.

The addition of the iris scanning feature in the scaled-down device would be on par with the biometrics “automated toolset” that is currently deployed in Iraq, Hamblet said. That system, which also collects fingerprints and photographs for facial recognition, was initially deployed to the battlefield to compile a database of prisoners. Marines have also expanded its use as part of a campaign to issue localized identification cards to verify residency in Western Iraq.

The identity dominant system will take the Navy’s currently deployed biometrics technology a step further. “What we’re driving towards is combining all that functionality in a single five-pound device,” he said. “What we’re ideally working towards is a small system that can fit in the cargo pocket of one of the sailors who is on the [visit, board, search and seizure] team.” It will have to be hardy, and stand up to the rigors of a demanding sea operational environment.

“You’ve got to make a system that can be dropped three feet onto a steel deck and still work,” as well as get wet, operate in the intense heat of the Persian Gulf while having sufficient battery life, he added.

The identity dominant system will be loaded with about 300,000 individual biometric files that are downloaded from the Defense Department’s already existing watchlist. If, however, no match is made, the Navy search-and-seizure team could then relay the biometric data collected to its parent ship. That data would then be transmitted in real time to the Defense Department’s central database in the United States to check for any updates. If someone is identified as “wanted,” then the Navy team can detain that person, Hamblet explained.

“Without that capability, you have to download the data on a memory stick and then carry it back to the ship on a small boat,” Hamblet added.

The identity dominant system’s collection and image quality will be designed to meet both Defense Department and international biometrics standards, he noted, which will ensure that the information gleaned by Navy teams can also be directed to other biometric databases.

Sailors are being asked for input before the design of the portable device is completed, Hamblet said. “We’ve done some focus group studies where we’ve met with sailors, given them prototype devices and asked them for feedback on location of the buttons.”

While it is not yet a program of record, the Navy has already spent $13 million on research and design for the identity dominant system. The nuts and bolts of its technology components already exist. “What is not mature is getting all that capability into a small box,” he said. “The individual biometric collection technologies themselves are not a great challenge. It’s the integration.”

The Navy is working with Southwest Research Institute, Roper Industries subsidiary RMT, Technical Management Group, Aware, and I-3.

The Marine Corps may, too, be interested in acquiring the identity dominant system, Hamblet said. “It’s not simply a Navy requirement. All the services are looking for that as well.”   

The Coast Guard already has deployed biometric technologies for use by crews who search suspicious vessels (see related story). But the Navy and the Coast Guard do not share that technology. The lack of collaboration, said a Navy spokesman, is explained by the fact that they are in two different departments — the Coast Guard is under the Department of Homeland Security and not Defense.

Topics: Homeland Security, Navy News

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