Tech Detective: Electric Shoes and Breadcrumbs’ for the Troops –

Walking through the halls of SRI International, it’s hard not to be distracted by a heap of shrapnel sitting on a counter. Something was obviously blown up (“extreme deformation” in the parlance), but what was the thing, and was it extremely deformed from five feet away or from outer space?

We’re here to see what kind of futuristic defense technology SRI is developing that has broad commercial applications. The shrapnel looked like a good place to start, but Senior Research Engineer Roy Kornbluh is way more excited about showing off a plastic jack -o’-lantern in the bowels of the company’s headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. It’s made from something called “artificial muscle,” the same material that a certain three-initial federal agency is very keen to use.

Inside a room whose chief decoration is a “Danger High-Voltage” sign tacked to one wall, Kornbluh attaches two electrodes to the back of Jack. The electrodes connect to a roll of black rubber, which is connected to a series of levers and gears made from some advanced Lego toy. The assembly ends in the toothy grin of the plastic pumpkin. When Kornbluh pushes a button, the rubber roll inside lengthens, moving the jaw of the jack-o’-lantern and forcing the plastic teeth together.

Attack Pumpkins

Might it be possible that the CIA wants truckloads of jack-o’-lanterns with razor-sharp teeth to distribute to agents on covert trick-or-treat missions throughout the world? No, Kornbluh smiles, that’s not it. The agency with three initials (he won’t divulge whether it’s the CIA or FBI) wants to send sheets of the artificial muscle glued to enormous flexible mirrors into space. “It wants it for telescopes,” he says, “with much larger mirrors than the Hubble telescope. Telescopes that can read your license plate from space.”

With the excited demeanor of a parent describing a bright child, Kornbluh explains that the artificial muscle-a thin, rubbery conductive material-expands when given an electric charge. Remember all the trouble with the Hubble telescope? Basically it couldn’t focus because the mirrors were poorly shaped. Using artificial muscle will allow the shape of the mirrors to be controlled remotely, pulled into perfect symmetry and, thus, perfect focus. The light, durable rubber polymer also makes it ideal for deployment in the harsh environment of space.

A group of men enter the room to look at the artificial muscle. They huddle around the displays, poking and prodding and asking technical questions. They speak Japanese and are from a large device manufacturer, but no one will say which one. It was the Japanese government that first funded development of artificial muscle in the 90s. The U.S. Department of Defense has picked up the bulk of the $10 million tab.

The base material used to create the muscle looks and feels like a gray, dirty flap of skin. SRI buys the rubber polymer in bulk then coats it with a conducting material. The applications for the cheap engineered rubber are numerous because it responds differently depending on whether it is rolled, stretched or twisted. Kornbluh shows off loudspeakers that look like a Ziplock bag filled with air.

What Would John Say?

When the bag is plugged into a CD player and a power amp the Beatle’s “Drive My Car” comes warbling out (from the album “Rubber Soul”-engineer humor). The sound is not good, no lows, but it illustrates the point of how adaptable the artificial muscle is. With some work the sound could be good, and think of the walls of sound you could create in cars, offices, homes-anyplace with a power supply.

SRI is also experimenting with a one-pound robotic bug called “Flex” whose six legs have been equipped with artificial muscle, giving it a wide range of motion.

Another robot, a prototype flying machine, sits on a table, its wings modeled on the wings of a humming bird. A gas-powered version was built for the U.S. military, and the next step is to get the six-inch metal bird to flap its wings using the much stealthier artificial muscle.

Yet another military application is displayed next to an army boot with a massive hole bored out of the heel. Into the hole fits a cylinder, two-and-half inches in diameter and about one inch thick. It is rippled like the folds of an accordion. Called the “heel strike generator,” it is made of the artificial muscle, but in this case the material is configured to generate electricity rather than consume it. Each step a soldier takes squeezes the artificial muscle and generates a bit of juice. Two shoes equipped with the mini-generators produce about two watts, enough energy to power a cell phone.

The electricity-generating boots are perfect for the long marches the military is so fond of. And the military is looking to lessen its load of batteries. “Soldiers carry more batteries than bullets these days,” says Peter Marcotullio, director of business development for SRI. “They spend $250 million on batteries, and they don’t want to have to have them.”

A sneaker company SRI won’t name is paying to develop the shoe generator. The commercial version will be smaller and integrated into the rubber of the shoe. The plan is to generate enough electricity to power phones, music players, game players, whatever. Look for a teenager near you to be wearing the shoes in 2005.

SRI has set up a for-profit spinout, Artificial Muscle Inc., to cash in on the many commercial opportunities. No products have been commercially produced yet, but AMI is configuring prototypes for a dozen potential customers, including car companies, furniture makers, toy makers and medical device manufacturers. Marcotullio has hit up industrial partners to invest in AMI. He expects to make the rounds with VCs in the fourth quarter, once he fine- tunes the business plan.

Radio Program

After the Japanese contingent leaves with Kornbluh, Marcotullio pulls out five iPAQ pocket PCs and makes sure their 802.11 cards are working. What he holds in his hands is a peer-to-peer (P2P) wireless network, what SRI calls PacketHop. It may look new, but its lineage dates back to radio-packet technology work SRI started 25 years ago for military applications. All the hardware is off-the-shelf. The software is developed in-house.

Marcotullio fans out the color screens of the iPAQs in his hand. Each shows a grid of intersecting lines ending in numerals, representing the other devices that have formed the ad hoc network. Because they use the 802.11 wireless protocol (commonly known as Wi-Fi), the devices must be within about 300 feet of each other for the network to hold together. The concept is simple. Each time a person adds a device to the mix, the IP-based network grows in size, speed and capacity.

Imagine the applications for soldiers in hostile urban areas or firefighters battling blazes in skyscrapers. Command centers could be wireless-enabled laptops linked to nearby offices with Internet connections. Because the network is entirely P2P, there is no threat of a central server crashing. If a command center gets too hot, it can be moved to another device in the network.

To overcome 802.11 distance limitations there could be fixed devices on strategic buildings. In remote areas or a stricken building, people could scatter disposable wireless nodes like breadcrumbs to maintain and expand the network as they go about their mission.

Marcotullio leads a march down the hallway, checking his screens. A new device appears on the network that is linked to the Internet. The entire network now has Internet access. Marcotullio opens a browser and pulls up the latest business page from Reuters.

Nowhere To Hide

The options for the network depend on how each device is being used. In the field, the devices could be equipped with bio-sensors and global positioning systems. The command center would know exactly where its people were and their status. Data, photos and maps could all be sent quickly over 802.11. Standard wireless security programs operate on top of the entire software setup.

“For about $1,000 per person we can equip everybody plus their vehicles and their infrastructure,” Marcotullio says.

As with AMI, the plan is to spin off PacketHop as a for-profit company. A CEO has already been hired to run the operation.

One potential customer is the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. Mike Griffin, assistant chief law enforcement for the office, tested the PacketHop in August and liked what he saw. “We haven’t gone as far as to say, Can we afford it?’ or How much will it cost?'” Griffin says, “but my opinion is this is the direction where we are headed.”

The ad hoc networking concept could have broader applications within large corporations. Think of a group of engineers swapping email or designs in real time anywhere on a campus. Marcotullio is pitching VCs on the idea. He plans to push the fund-raising effort later this year. “This technology is ready to go,” he says. “We are ready to do trials and demos within a month.”