CAT: A Thruster for Interplanetary CubeSats | Kickstarter Project by Benjamin Longmier, Ph.D.

The CAT plasma thruster will propel a 5kg satellite into deep space, far beyond Earth orbit, at 1/1000th the cost of previous missions. Learn more by checking out and supporting CAT: A Thruster for Interplanetary CubeSats | Kickstarter Project by Benjamin Longmier, Ph.D.

Platform Architecture for Solar, Thermal and Vibration Energy combining with MPPT and single inductor, Saurav Bandyopadhyay, April 2010

Platform Architecture for Solar, Thermal and Vibration Energy combining with MPPT and single inductor

Saurav Bandyopadhyay
April 2010

The energy harvesting system designed combines energy from thermal,solar and vibrational energy sources. It uses a dual-path architecture having improved efficiencies with solar MPPT and a single off-chip inductor. The IC is designed in a 0.35um digital CMOS process.

Energy Combiner

10 hard truths developers must learn to accept by Peter Wayner (@techworldnews)

On most days, programming is a rewarding experience, with no problem too challenging to solve. Perseverance, intuition, the right tool — they all come together seamlessly to produce elegant, beautiful code.

But then a botched deployment, yet another feature request, or a poorly documented update with crippling dependencies comes crashing headlong into the dream.Sure, we might wish our every effort had enduring impact, that the services our apps rely on would be rock-solid, that we would get the respect we deserve, if only from those who should know better. But the cold, harsh realities of programming get in the way.

[ Find out which 11 programming trends are on the rise, verse yourself in the 12 programming mistakes to avoid, and test your programming smarts with our programming IQ tests: Round 1 and Round 2 and Hello, world: Programming languages quiz. | Keep up on key application development insights with the Fatal Exception blog and Developer World newsletter. ]

Sure, we might wish our every effort had enduring impact, that the services our apps rely on would be rock-solid, that we would get the respect we deserve, if only from those who should know better. But the cold, harsh realities of programming get in the way.

That doesn’t mean the effort isn’t worth it. But it does mean we have some hard truths to face. Here are 10 aspects of programming developers must learn to live with.

Developer hard truth No. 1: It’s all just if-then-else statements

Language designers argue about closures, typing, and amazing abstractions, but in the end, it’s just clever packaging wrapped around good, old if-then-else statements.

That’s pretty much all the hardware offers. Yes, there are op codes for moving data in and out of memory and op codes for arithmetic, but the rest is branch or not branch based on some comparison.

Folks who dabble in artificial intelligence put a more mysterious cloak around these if-then-else statements, but at the end of the day, the clever statistical recommendation engine is going to choose the largest or smallest value from some matrix of numbers. It will perform calculations, then skim through the list, saying, “If this greater, else if this greater, else if this greater,” until it derives its decision.

Developer hard truth No. 2: Most of the Web is just data stored in tables

For the past 20 years, the word “Internet” has tingled with the promise of fabulous wealth, better friendships, cheaper products, faster communication, and everything but a cure for cancer. Yet at its core, most of the Internet is a bunch of data stored in tables. A table of potential dates with columns filled with hair color, religion, and favorite dessert. eBay? It’s a table of deals with a column set to record the highest bid. Blogs? One table with one row for every cranky complaint. You name it; it’s a table.

We like to believe that the Internet is a mystic wizard with divine wisdom, but it’s closer to Bob Cratchit, the clerk from Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” recording data in big accounting books filled with columns. It’s an automated file clerk, not the invention of an electronic Gandalf or Dumbledore.

We see this in our programming languages. Ruby on Rails, one of the most popular comets to cross the Web, is a thin veneer over a database. Specify a global variable and Rails creates a column for you because it knows it’s all about building a table in a database.

Oh, and the big, big innovation that’s coming 20 years into the game is the realization that we don’t always need to fill up every column of the table. That’s NoSQL for you. It may try to pretend to be something other than a table, but it’s really a more enlightened table that accepts holes.

Developer hard truth No. 3: Users have minds of their own

You might think that the event listener you created for your program and labeled “save” has something to do with storing a copy of the program’s state to disk. In reality, users will see it as a magic button that will fix all of the mistakes in their ruined document, or a chance to add to their 401(k), something to click to open up the heavens and lead to life eternal.

In other words, we might like to think we’ve created the perfect machine, but the users beat us every time. For every bulletproof design we create to eliminate the chance of failure, they come up with one combination of clicks to send the machine crashing without storing anything on disk. For every elegant design, they find a way to swipe or click everything into oblivion.

There are moments when users can be charming, but for the most part, they are quirky and unpredictable — and can be very demanding. Programmers can try to guess how and where these peculiarities will arise when users are confronted with the end result of code, but they’ll probably fail. Most users aren’t programmers, and asking a programmer to think like the average user is like asking a cat to think like a dog.

This goes beyond simple cases of user stupidity. No matter how clever your invention or elegant your code, it still has to catch on. Predicting that users will not balk at a 140-character limit for expressing ire and desires is no easy business.

Developer hard truth No. 4: Most of what you code will never be used

Somehow it feels good to know that your new software can speak XML, CSV, and Aramaic. Excuse me; our implementation team would like to know if this can decode Mayan hieroglyphics because we might need that by the end of 2012. If it doesn’t have that feature, we’ll be OK, but it will be so much easier to get the purchase order signed if you could provide that. Thanks.

The users, of course, could care less. They want one button and even that one button can confuse them. The wonderful code you wrote to support the other N-1 buttons might get executed when the QA team comes through, but beyond that, there is no guarantee the sprints and all-nighters will have been anything more than busywork and bureaucracy.

Programmers don’t even get the same boost as artists, who can always count on selling a few copies of their work to their parents and relatives. Our parents won’t come through and run the extra code on the feature that just had to be implemented because someone in a brainstorm thought it would be a game changer.

Developer hard truth No. 5: Scope creep is inevitable

One manager I know told me his secret was to always smile and tell his team he loved what they were doing, even if it was terrible. Then on the way out the door, he would say, “Oh, one more thing.” That thing was often a real curveball that upended the project and sent everyone back to redesigning the application.

Scope creep is almost a direct consequence of the structure of projects. The managers do all of the hard work with spreadsheets before it begins. They concoct big dreams and build economic models to justify the investment.

All the hard work ends once they bring in the developers. Suddenly the managers have nothing to do but fret. Is that button in the right space? Should the log-in page look different? And fretting leads to ideas and ideas lead to requests for changes.

They love to use phrases like “while you’re mucking around in there” or “while you’ve got the hood up.” This is what happens to projects, and it’s been happening for years. After all, even Ada Lovelace’s analytical engine, considered by most to be the first computer program, endured its own form of scope creep, born of nearly a year spent augmenting notes.

Developer hard truth No. 6: No one understands you — especially the boss

There are two kinds of programmers: those who work for bosses who can’t program and don’t know how hard it can be to make your code compile, and those who work for former programmers who’ve forgotten how hard it can be to make your code compile.

Your boss will never understand you or your work. It’s understandable when the liberal arts major in business development gets an idea that you can’t solve without a clairvoyant computer chip. They couldn’t know better.

But the boss who has forgotten? That’s understandable, too. Even the best programmer forgets the API for a library after a month or two. Imagine going two or three years without flipping the bits. And then remember that when they went to school, the classes were about Java, not JavaScript. Even Ruby seems so yesterday.

This truth has one advantage: If the boss understood how to solve the problem, the boss would have stayed late one night and solved it. Hiring you and communicating with you is always more time consuming than doing it.

Developer hard truth No. 7: Privacy is a pain

We want our services to protect our users and their information. But we also want the sites to be simple to operate and responsive. The click depth — the number of clicks it takes to get to our destination — should be as shallow as possible.

The problem is that privacy means asking a few questions before letting someone dig deeper. Giving people control over the proliferation of information means adding more buttons to define what happens.

Privacy also means responsibility. If the user doesn’t want the server to know what’s going on, the user better take responsibility because the server is going to have trouble reading the user’s mind. Responsibility is a hassle and that means that privacy is a hassle.

Privacy can drive us into impossible logical binds. There are two competing desires: One is to be left alone, and the other is to be sent a marvelous message. One desire offers the blissful peace with no interruptions, and the other can bring an invitation or a love letter, a job offer, a dinner party, or just a free offer from your favorite store.

Alas, you can’t have one without the other. Fighting distractions will also drive off the party invitations. Hiding your email address means that the one person who wants to find you will be pulling out their hair looking for a way to contact you. In most cases, they’ll simply move on.

Developer hard truth No. 8: Trust isn’t cheap

The promise of Web 2.0 sounded wonderful. Just link your code to someone else’s and magic happens. Your code calls theirs, theirs calls yours, and the instructions dance together like Fred and Ginger.

If only it were that easy. First, you have to fill out all these forms before they let you use their code. In most cases, your lawyers will have a fit because the forms require you to sign away everything. What do you get in return? Hand-waving about how your code will maybe get a response from their code some of the time. Just trust us.

Who could blame them, really? You could be a spammer, a weirdo, or a thief who wants to leverage Web 2.0 power to work a scam. They have to trust you, too.

And the user gets to trust both of you. Privacy? Sure. Everyone promises to use the best practices and the highest-powered encryption software while sharing your information with everyone under the sun. Don’t worry.

The end result is often more work than you want to invest in a promise that kinda, sorta delivers.

Developer hard truth No. 9: Bitrot happens

When you start, you can grab the latest versions of the libraries and everything works for a week or two. Then version 1.0.2 of library A comes along, but it won’t work with the latest version of library B because A’s programmers have been stuck on the previous big release. Then the programmers working on C release some new feature that your boss really wants you to tap. Naturally it only works with version 1.0.2.

When houses and boats rot, they fall apart in one consistent way. When code rots, it falls apart in odd and complex ways. If you really want C, you have to give up B. If you choose B, you’ll have to tell your boss that C isn’t a real option.

This example used only three libraries. Real projects use a dozen or more, and the problems grow exponentially. To make matters worse, the rot doesn’t always present itself immediately. Sometimes it seems like the problem is only in one unimportant corner that can be coded around. But often this tiny incompatibility festers and the termites eat their way through everything until it all collapses.

The presence of bitrot is made all the more amazing by the fact that computer code doesn’t wear out. There are no moving parts, no friction, no oxidation, and no carbon chains acting as bait for microbes. Our code is an eternal statement that should be just as good in 100 years as it was on the day it was written. Yet it isn’t.

The only bright spots are the emulators that allow us to run that old Commodore 64 or Atari code again and again. They’re wonderful museums that keep code running forever — as long as you fight the bitrot in the emulator.

Developer hard truth No. 10: The walled garden will flourish

For all the talk about the importance of openness, there’s more and more evidence that only a small part of the marketplace wants it. To make things worse, they’re often not as willing to pay for the extra privilege. The free software advocates want free as in speech and free as in beer. Few are willing to pay much for it.

That may be why the biggest adopters of Linux and BSD come wrapped in proprietary code. Devices like TiVo may have Linux buried inside, but the interface that makes them great isn’t open. The same goes for the Mac.

The companies that ship Linux boxes, however, have trouble competing against Windows boxes. Why pay about the same price for Linux when you can buy a Windows machine and install Linux alongside?

Walled gardens flourish when people will pay more for what’s inside, and we’re seeing more and more examples of cases when the people will pay the price of admission. Mac laptops may cost two to three times as much as a commodity PC, yet the stores are packed to the limit imposed by the fire code.

The walls are getting thicker. At the launch of the third iPad, Apple bragged about shipping millions and millions of post-PC devices. Deep inside an iPhone is an open source operating system, but only a tiny percentage of customers even know this. Until people know and care about this features, walled gardens will thrive.

Thousand-Color Sensor Reveals Contaminants in Earth and Sea by Prof. Eyal Ben-Dor and Tel Aviv University Department of Geography and the Human Environment

TAU technology spots environmental hazards from inches to light-years away

The HSR sensor
in a TAU laboratory.

The world may seem painted with endless color, but physiologically the human eye sees only three bands of light — red, green, and blue. Now a Tel Aviv University – developed technology is using colors invisible to the naked eye to analyze the world we live in. With the ability to detect more than 1,000 colors, the “hyperspectral” (HSR) camera, like Mr. Spock’s sci-fi “Tricorder,” is being used to “diagnose” contaminants and other environmental hazards in real time.

Prof. Eyal Ben-Dor of TAU’s Department of Geography and the Human Environment says that reading this extensive spectrum of color allows the sensor to analyze 300 times more information than the human brain can process. Small and easy to use, the sensor can provide immediate, cost-effective, and accurate monitoring of forests, urban areas, agricultural lands, harbors, or marinas — areas which are often endangered by contaminants and phenomena such as soil erosion or sediment dust. Using the hyperspectral camera will ultimately lead to better protection and treatment of the environment.

The HSR sensor, detailed in the journal Remote Sensing of Environment, has both commercial and scientific applications, says Prof. Ben-Dor, who has consulted for local and foreign space agencies in their use of the technology. These applications can include anything from helping companies adhere to regulations on environmental contamination to measuring the extent of environmental damage caused by forest fires.

From far and wide

Prof. Eyal Ben-Dor
Prof. Eyal Ben-Dor

The sensor interprets reflected sunlight radiation that bounces off an object, material, or environment. Each reflected color represents a different chemical reaction between two compounds. “A combination of absorption or reflection of energy creates the color that the HSR sensor sees,” explains Prof. Ben-Dor. The sensor’s extensive range — reading information from as close as 0.4 inches and as far as 500 miles away — means it can be placed anywhere from the ground itself to unmanned aircraft, satellites or weather balloons. The camera can also be pointed towards the stars to help astronomers gain insight into the make-up of a planet’s atmosphere.

Most recently, Prof. Ben-Dor has used the technology to survey different environments, including soil and sea, seeking to identify problem areas. The area around gas pipelines is one site of environmental contamination, he says. Leaks can be particularly damaging to the surrounding earth, so the sensors can be used to test along a pipeline for water content, organic matter, and toxins alike. In agricultural areas, the sensor can be used to determine levels of salt in the soil to save crops before they are destroyed.

The technique is also effective in marinas, which are highly contaminated by gasoline and sealants from the undersides of sea vessels. “This toxic material sinks, and becomes concentrated on the sediment of the marina, which also contaminates nearby beaches,” Prof. Ben-Dor explains.

The color of possibility

Before the HSR technology was developed, samples of potentially contaminated or endangered soil, sediment or water would have to be taken to the lab for lengthy analysis. With the use of a hyperspectral sensor, real-time analysis allows immediate action to better environmental conditions. The sensor can also be used to determine levels of indoor pollution caused by dust, analyze the strength of concrete being used for buildings in earthquake zones, or scan the environment around an open mine to look at the impact on human health.

According to Prof. Ben-Dor, this technology’s potential is endless and can be used in disciplines such as medicine, pharmacology, textile industry, and civil engineering. Without so much as a touch, the sensor can provide in-depth analysis on environmental composition. It’s a method that can map and monitor the earth from “microscope to telescope,” he says.

The Future of Artificial Intelligence by Kenneth D. Forbus

Computers do not suffer from the same frailties as humans and, as a result, have greater capacity to achieve in certain areas

A major shift in the way people interact with computers is coming. And it is something that we badly need. The problems we face in our societies are growing ever more complex, but our human cognitive capacities remain unchanged. Modern information technology helps, to be sure. But the current model of “software as tool” is ultimately limited. Times change, and our software needs to change with them, ideally without the intervention of a priesthood of technical experts. I believe as artificial intelligence advances, a new model – “software as collaborator” – will become possible, with tremendous potential benefits.

Collaborators adapt to each other, playing off each other’s strengths, so that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Software collaborators could be designed to be enough like people that this mutual adaptation is possible, and that we can understand and trust their contributions. But, we should also be able to design them without certain human frailties. People tend to only look for evidence that confirms their hypotheses – called confirmation bias – and have other things on their minds, such as their life outside of work.

Software collaborators that do not share these frailties could become valuable complements to individuals and to teams. We are still a long way from being able to build software collaborators, but there is important progress being made in many fronts in artificial intelligence. For example, IBM’s Watson shows how a combination of AI techniques can combine synergistically to perform question-answering at a level that no one thought was possible a few years ago. Machine-reading techniques were used to assimilate vast collections of documents into internal representations that supported multiple forms of reasoning. Machine learning techniques were used to determine which strategies were likely to succeed for different types of questions. Massive hardware power was harnessed to provide real-time responses, capable of performing at the level of the best humans at its task. Such a system takes a step towards the collaborator model, by adapting to the human world – instead, of humans adapting to the IT world.

But this is only a first step. Collaborators engage in dialogue, with follow-up questions being interpreted with respect to the ongoing conversation. Such dialogues can include sketching and gestures, as well as text and speech – called ‘multimodal dialogues’. Many researchers are working on sketch understanding, vision for understanding gestures and facial expressions. And Microsoft’s Kinect will catalyse even more work in this area, and dialogue understanding. Collaborators work for long time spans, ranging from hours to years, tracking changing information, updating models to maintain situational awareness and learning as they go.

Building robust systems that can reason and learn over a vast range of knowledge remains an exciting open challenge. Many in the artificial intelligence community are addressing this question, from a variety of perspectives. Cognitive architectures offer one intriguing approach, in trying to model cognition in the “large” – as opposed to narrow technical areas. Often this work is performed in collaboration with other cognitive scientists – since understanding how people reason, learn and interact provides valuable clues for creating intelligent systems.

Watson’s enormous computing requirements may seem to limit the potential for future systems, which will require even more computation than it used. Although, yesterday’s supercomputer is tomorrow’s smartphone and within a few years of Deep Blue’s victory at chess in 1997, there were programs that performed at similar levels without special hardware. So assuming artificial intelligence – and computer science and engineering, more broadly – remains on-course, we should be able to create software collaborators.

Kenneth D. Forbus is chairman of the Cognitive Science Society, in the United States. This article first appeared in’s sister title Public Service Review: European Science & Technology

OV8850 ||| Color CMOS 8 Megapixel (3280 x 2464) Image Sensor with OmniBSI-2™ Technology by OmniVision

The 1/4-inch OV8850 leads the CMOS sensor pixel design race in the smartphone market by enabling autofocus modules that are 20 percent slimmer than today’s 1/3.2-inch 8-megapixel modules. Besides a small footprint, the 1.1-micron OmniBSI-2 pixel offers significant improvements in power efficiency and comparable image quality to the previous generation 1.4-micron OmniBSI™ pixel, making it an attractive solution for next-generation smartphones and tablets.

An integrated scaler allows the camera to maintain full field of view in 1080p/30 high-definition (HD) video and preview modes and provides extra adjustable resolution for electronic image stabilization (EIS). Additionally, the sensor’s 2 x 2 binning functionality provides EIS for 720p/60 HD video recording. Other advanced features of the OV8850 include an on-chip temperature sensor, two PLLs, context switching, 4 Kbits of one-time programmable memory, lens shading correction, defective pixel cancelling, black sun elimination, and alternate row exposure for high dynamic range (HDR) video and still image capture.

The OV8850 supports 8 and 10-bit RAW image output with all standard image quality control functions supported through the SCCB interface. The sensor fits in an 8.5 x 8.5 mm autofocus camera module with a build height of 4.7 mm and features a 4-lane MIPI/LVDS that facilitates the required high data transfer rate.


  • Automatic black level calibration (ABLC)
  • Programmable controls for frame rate, mirror and flip, cropping, windowing, and scaling
  • Image quality controls: lens correction and defective pixel canceling, black sun elimination
  • Supports output formats: 8/10-bit RAW
  • Embedded full scaler
  • Supports horizontal and vertical subsampling
  • Support 2×2 binning, re-sampling filter
  • Supports images sizes: 8 Mpixel, EIS1080p, 1080p, EIS720p, EISQ 1080p, Q1080p, EISVGA, VGA, QVGA, etc.
  • Fast mode switching
  • Standard serial SCCB interface
  • Up to 4-lane MIPI serial output interface
  • Up to 4-lane LVDS serial output interface
  • Embedded 2K bits one-time programmable (OTP)
  • Memory for part identification, etc.
  • On-chip phase lock loop (PLL)
  • Programmable I/O drive capability
  • Built-in 1.2V regulator for core
  • Built-in temperature sensor
  • Supports alternate row HDR timing

Product Specifications

Part Number OV8850-G04A
Package Size 5550 x 5400 µm
Analog/ Digital Digital
Chroma Color
Array Size 3280 x 2464 µm
Resolution 8 MP
Package RW
Optical Format 1/4″
Pixel Size 1.1 µm
Frame Rate 30 @ EIS1080p
24 @ Full
60 @ EIS720p
Power Consumption TBD
Temperature Stable: 0° – 65°C
Operating: -30° – 70°C
Output Format RAW
Product Brief  Product Brief

Apple’s Face Recognition Plans For iOS5 To Make Smartphones Even Smarter by Kit Eaton

Way back in 2010, Apple spent some of its fast-amassing cash pile to buy Polar Rose, a face recognition firm from Sweden. Now it seems it’s been busy ever since incorporating Polar Rose’s face identificationand tracking algorithms into iOS5–its upcoming revision of the operating system that powers iPhones and iPads. So deep is the integration–it’s far beyond a simple app–that there’re API handles.

This is huge news, for all the reasons that Google’s use of face recognition in its online offerings could change much about the web. By adding controls into iOS’ API, Apple’s allowing third-party apps to access the core face recognition tech. Code like “hasLeftEyePosition,” “mouthPosition” and the image-processing for identification means that apps can track faces and also recognize users.

This means games can track face positions for an unusual mode of input, apps like Instagram could automatically tag people’s faces they can identify, smart video apps could use facial cues to do digital image stabilization and so on. In more interactive modes, we can even imagine iOS face IDs on an iPhone being used as an automatic log-in on a paired Mac. And it’s even plausible that Apple may be using facial recognition as part of its secure user authentication for future wireless wave-and-pay systems, which we know it’s been working on.

But wait, there’s more. Another relatively recent Apple purchase, Siri, is also showing up in the latest developer builds of iOS5, alongside evidence that Apple’s including code it acquired as part of its deal with voice recognition experts Nuance. Siri was a highly promising smart personal assistant app, and until now it’s entirely disappeared, so the fact it’s showing up in iOS5 is interesting. And it could be transformational. Because what Apple seems to be doing is enable smart voice control in iOS5 along the lines of “set up a meeting with mark on wednesday at 11 a.m.,” where Mark is a user contact. There’re also text-to-speech powers, which could be really important for using your phone while driving–we can imagine an iPhone reading out incoming SMSs, and also a smarter integrated navigation app (which we know Apple’s also working on).

In this sense, Apple’s moving the iPhone and iPad toward the famous Knowledge Navigator concept it created back in the 1980s. And we are thus tempted to think it’ll only work in full on newer devices–possibly just the iPad 3, the upcoming iPhone 5 (and maybe the current generation too): Apple prefers to make its enhanced user experiences “all or nothing,” implying that the degraded performance older devices offer for new high-tech software is too disappointing to users.

And it’s also a powerful new weapon in the war against Android tablets and phones. When the Android Nexus One first emerged, we called its integration of voice control an important secret feature. But it’s never been properly realized, much less spun into the tightly integrated smart “digital PA” which Apple seems to be working toward. By adding in all this tech, Apple’s enabling all sorts of clever marketing angles, and is even appealing to business users a little more–something it seems keen on at a corporate level.

Resistive switches based on piezoelectric nanowires allow electrical signals to be produced from mechanical actions by John Toon

The piezoelectrically modulated resistive memory (PRM) devices take advantage of the fact that the of piezoelectric such as (ZnO) can be controlled through the application of strain from a mechanical action. The change in resistance can be detected electronically, providing a simple way to obtain an from a mechanical action.

“We can provide the interface between biology and electronics,” said Zhong Lin Wang, Regents professor in the School of Materials Science and Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “This technology, which is based on , allows communication between a mechanical action in the biological world and conventional devices in the electronic world.”

The research was reported online June 22 in the journal Nano Letters. The work was sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the National Science Foundation (NSF), the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Department of Energy.

In conventional transistors, the flow of current between a source and a drain is controlled by a gate voltage applied to the device. That gate voltage determines whether the device is on or off.
The piezotronic memory devices developed by Wang and graduate student Wenzhuo Wu take advantage of the fact that piezoelectric materials like zinc oxide produce a charge potential when they are mechanically deformed or otherwise put under strain. These PRM devices use the piezoelectric charge created by the deformation to control the current flowing through the zinc oxide that are at the heart of the devices – the basic principle of piezotronics. The charge creates polarity in the nanowires – and increases the electrical resistance much like gate voltage in a conventional transistor.

“We are replacing the application of an external voltage with the production of an internal voltage,” Wang explained. “Because zinc oxide is both piezoelectric and semiconducting, when you strain the material with a mechanical action, you create a piezopotential. This piezopotential tunes the charge transport across the interface – instead of controlling channel width as in conventional field effect transistors.”

Resistive switches based on piezoelectric nanowires allow electrical signals to be produced from mechanical actions

An array of piezoelectrically modulated resistive memory (PRM) cells is shown being studied in an optical microscope. Credit: Gary Meek

The mechanical strain could come from mechanical activities as diverse as signing a name with a pen, the motion of an actuator on a nanorobot, or biological activities of the human body such as a heart beating.

“We control the charge flow across the interface using strain,” Wang explained. “If you have no strain, the charge flows normally. But if you apply a strain, the resulting voltage builds a barrier that controls the flow.”

The piezotronic switching affects current flowing in just one direction, depending whether the strain is tensile or compressive. That means the memory stored in the piezotronic devices has both a sign and a magnitude. The information in this memory can be read, processed and stored through conventional electronic means.

Taking advantage of large-scale fabrication techniques for zinc oxide nanowire arrays, the Georgia Tech researchers have built non-volatile resistive switching memories for use as a storage medium. They have shown that these piezotronic devices can be written, that information can be read from them, and that they can be erased for re-use. About 20 of the arrays have been built so far for testing.

The zinc oxide nanowires, which are about 500 nanometers in diameter and about 50 microns long, are produced with a physical vapor deposition process that uses a high-temperature furnace. The resulting structures are then treated with oxygen plasma to reduce the number of crystalline defects – which helps to control their conductivity. The arrays are then transferred to a flexible substrate.

“The switching voltage is tunable, depending on the number of oxygen vacancies in the structure,” Wang said. “The more defects you quench away with the oxygen plasma, the larger the voltage that will be required to drive current flow.”

The piezotronic operate at low frequencies, which are appropriate for the kind of biologically-generated signals they will record, Wang said.

Resistive switches based on piezoelectric nanowires allow electrical signals to be produced from mechanical actions

Image shows an array of piezoelectrically modulated resistive memory (PRM) cells on which metal electrodes have been patterned using lithography. Credit: Gary Meek

These piezotronic memory elements provide another component needed for fabricating complete self-powered nanoelectromechanical systems (NEMS) on a single chip. Wang’s research team has already demonstrated other key elements such as nanogenerators, sensors and wireless transmitters.

“We are taking another step toward the goal of self-powered complete systems,” Wang said. “The challenges now are to make them small enough to be integrated onto a single chip. We believe these systems will solve important problems in people’s lives.”

Wang believes this new memory will become increasingly important as devices become more closely connected to individual human activities. The ability to build these devices on means they can be used in the body – and with other electronic devices now being built on materials that are not traditional silicon.

“As computers and other electronic devices become more personalized and human-like, we will need to develop new types of signals, interfacing mechanical actions to electronics,” he said. “Piezoelectric materials provide the most sensitive way to translate these gentle mechanical actions into electronic signals that can be used by electronic devices.”

ARM backs massive computer brain and $7m cleantech venture round by Ben Fountain

Low power chip designer, ARM is putting up to a million of its processors into a new breed of computer that aims to replicate the way the brain works and several million of its dollars into a new Cambridge cleantech venture.

Prof Steve Furber, who co-designed the ARM processor with Sophie Wilson while at Acorn Computers in Cambridge is leading the SpiNNaker (Spiking Neural Network architecture) project – a massively-parallel chip multiprocessor system that mimics how nerve cells in the brain interact.

Meanwhile, ARM has co-led a $7m Series A investment into Amantys, a one year startup developing power control technology that reduces the amount of energy lost in the power conversion process. The startup says it can “address power losses all the way from wind and solar photovoltaic modules, transmission grids and transformers through to electric motors and electric vehicles.”

Amantys, which  is staffed by a team of former ARM execs and Dr Patrick Palmer of Cambridge University’s department of engineering, says it is aiming to release its first products by Q4 of this year. The funding round was co-led by Moonray Investors, part of Fidelity International.

Amantys says it is looking to recruit ‘analogue design gurus’, embedded software and power electronics engineers

ARM has quietly assembled an investment portfolio worth $40m and containing 15 companies.

Principal designer of the BBC Microcomputer as well as the ARM 32-bit RISC microprocessor, Prof Furber is now ICL Professor Of Computer Engineering at University of Manchester. He is working with scientists from the universities of Cambridge, Southampton and Sheffield as well as industrial partners – foremost among them, ARM – to develop a massive computer, nicknamed, the ‘brain box.’

By emulating the networks of billions of neurons in the brain using ARM processors, the hope is that scientists will gain a greater understanding of how processing in the brain works – including how damage to the brain interferes with it – but also that these biological models will lead to more efficient and fault-tolerant computers.

Professor Furber said: “Developing and understanding the information processing in the brain is the key. We are actively engaging with neuroscientists and psychologists, both here at the University and elsewhere.

“This could ultimately be of great help for patients, for example, who have presented with reading problems caused by strokes or similar brain injuries. Psychologists have already developed neural networks on which they can reproduce the clinical pathologies. At present they are limited in the fidelity they can achieve with these networks by the available computer power, but we hope that SpiNNaker will raise that bar a lot higher.”

The project has received funding of £5m from EPSRC.

The chips that will power the system – designed in Manchester and manufactured in Taiwan – were delivered from the foundry last month and with 18 ARM processors on board every chip, they will dramatically increase the number of brain cell interactions that can be modeled compared to earlier test systems.

Although there will eventually be up to one million Arm processors in SpiNNaker, making it capable of modelling a billion neurons in real time, this is still only around 1per cent of the human brain.

In the brain, neurons emit spikes which are relayed as tiny electrical signals. Each impulse is modelled in SpiNNaker as a ‘packet’ of data, which is sent to all connected neurons. Neurons are represented by simple equations which are solved in real-time by software running on the Arm processors.

Acorn Computers co-founder, Hermann Hauser, who describes Prof Furber as one of the smartest people he has met, told New Electronics in December 2010 that he was “keeping an entrepreneurial eye” on his latest work. He told the publication: “There is potential in the way the demonstrator works that one can build a computer that can do certain things others cannot. The sort of the things humans are very good at and computers are not.”

Arm was approached in May 2005 to participate in the SpiNNaker project. A subsequent agreement paved the way to make ARM processor IP available to the project, along with ARM cell library IP to aid design and manufacturing.

Mike Muller, CTO at ARM said: “SpiNNaker seeks to create a working model of the ultimate smart system, the human brain. Steve is part of the Arm family, so this project was a perfect way to partner with him and Manchester University, and for ARM to encourage leading research in the UK.”

Solar Cells that See Red: metamaterials that convert lower-energy photons to usable wavelengths could offer solar cells an efficiency boost by Katherine Bourzac

Researchers at Stanford University have demonstrated a set of materials that could enable solar cells to use a band of the solar spectrum that otherwise goes to waste. The materials layered on the back of solar cells would convert red and near-infrared light—unusable by today’s solar cells—into shorter-wavelength light that the cells can turn into energy. The university researchers will collaborate with the Bosch Research and Technology Center in Palo Alto, California, to demonstrate a system in working solar cells in the next four years.

Even the best of today’s silicon solar cells can’t use about 30 percent of the light from the sun: that’s because the active materials in solar cells can’t interact with photons whose energy is too low. But though each of these individual photons is low energy, as a whole they represent a large amount of untapped solar energy that could make solar cells more cost-competitive.

The process, called “upconversion,” relies on pairs of dyes that absorb photons of a given wavelength and re-emit them as fewer, shorter-wavelength photons. In this case, the Bosch and Stanford researchers will work on systems that convert near-infrared wavelengths (most of which are unusable by today’s solar cells). The leader of the Stanford group, assistant professor Jennifer Dionne, believes the group can improve the sunlight-to-electricity conversion efficiency of amorphous-silicon solar cells from 11 percent to 15 percent.

The concept of upconversion isn’t new, but it’s never been demonstrated in a working solar cell, says Inna Kozinsky, a senior engineer at Bosch. Upconversion typically requires two types of molecules to absorb relatively high-wavelength photons, combine their energy, and re-emit it as higher-energy, lower-wavelength photons. However, the chances of the molecules encountering each other at the right time when they’re in the right energetic states are low. Dionne is developing nanoparticles to add to these systems in order to increase those chances. To make better upconversion systems, Dionne is designing metal nanoparticles that act like tiny optical antennas, directing light in these dye systems in such a way that the dyes are exposed to more light at the right time, which creates more upconverted light, and then directing more of that upconverted light out of the system in the end.

The ultimate vision, says Dionne, is to create a solid. Sheets of such a material could be laid down on the bottom of the cell, separated from the cell itself by an electrically insulating layer. Low-wavelength photons that pass through the active layer would be absorbed by the upconverter layer, then re-emitted back into the active layer as usable, higher-wavelength light.

Kozinsky says Bosch’s goal is to demonstrate upconversion of red light in working solar cells in three years, and upconversion of infrared light in four years. Factoring in the time needed to scale up to manufacturing, she says, the technology could be in Bosch’s commercial solar cells in seven to 10 years.

Ambient Electromagnetic Energy Harnessed for Small Electronic Devices by Rick Robinson

Researchers have discovered a way to capture and harness energy transmitted by such sources as radio and television transmitters, cell phone networks and satellite communications systems. By scavenging this ambient energy from the air around us, the technique could provide a new way to power networks of wireless sensors, microprocessors and communications chips.

“There is a large amount of electromagnetic energy all around us, but nobody has been able to tap into it,” said Manos Tentzeris, a professor in the Georgia Tech School of Electrical and Computer Engineering who is leading the research. “We are using an ultra-wideband antenna that lets us exploit a variety of signals in different frequency ranges, giving us greatly increased power-gathering capability.”

Tentzeris and his team are using inkjet printers to combine sensors, antennas and energy-scavenging capabilities on paper or flexible polymers. The resulting self-powered wireless sensors could be used for chemical, biological, heat and stress sensing for defense and industry; radio-frequency identification (RFID) tagging for manufacturing and shipping, and monitoring tasks in many fields including communications and power usage.

A presentation on this energy-scavenging technology was scheduled for delivery July 6 at the IEEE Antennas and Propagation Symposium in Spokane, Wash. The discovery is based on research supported by multiple sponsors, including the National Science Foundation, the Federal Highway Administration and Japan’s New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO).

Communications devices transmit energy in many different frequency ranges, or bands. The team’s scavenging devices can capture this energy, convert it from AC to DC, and then store it in capacitors and batteries. The scavenging technology can take advantage presently of frequencies from FM radio to radar, a range spanning 100 megahertz (MHz) to 15 gigahertz (GHz) or higher.

Scavenging experiments utilizing TV bands have already yielded power amounting to hundreds of microwatts, and multi-band systems are expected to generate one milliwatt or more. That amount of power is enough to operate many small electronic devices, including a variety of sensors and microprocessors.

And by combining energy-scavenging technology with super-capacitors and cycled operation, the Georgia Tech team expects to power devices requiring above 50 milliwatts. In this approach, energy builds up in a battery-like super-capacitor and is utilized when the required power level is reached.

The researchers have already successfully operated a temperature sensor using electromagnetic energy captured from a television station that was half a kilometer distant. They are preparing another demonstration in which a microprocessor-based microcontroller would be activated simply by holding it in the air.

Exploiting a range of electromagnetic bands increases the dependability of energy-scavenging devices, explained Tentzeris, who is also a faculty researcher in the Georgia Electronic Design Center (GEDC) at Georgia Tech. If one frequency range fades temporarily due to usage variations, the system can still exploit other frequencies.

The scavenging device could be used by itself or in tandem with other generating technologies. For example, scavenged energy could assist a solar element to charge a battery during the day. At night, when solar cells don’t provide power, scavenged energy would continue to increase the battery charge or would prevent discharging.

Utilizing ambient electromagnetic energy could also provide a form of system backup. If a battery or a solar-collector/battery package failed completely, scavenged energy could allow the system to transmit a wireless distress signal while also potentially maintaining critical functionalities.

The researchers are utilizing inkjet technology to print these energy-scavenging devices on paper or flexible paper-like polymers — a technique they already using to produce sensors and antennas. The result would be paper-based wireless sensors that are self-powered, low-cost and able to function independently almost anywhere.

To print electrical components and circuits, the Georgia Tech researchers use a standard-materials inkjet printer. However, they add what Tentzeris calls “a unique in-house recipe” containing silver nanoparticles and/or other nanoparticles in an emulsion. This approach enables the team to print not only RF components and circuits, but also novel sensing devices based on such nanomaterials as carbon nanotubes.

When Tentzeris and his research group began inkjet printing of antennas in 2006, the paper-based circuits only functioned at frequencies of 100 or 200 MHz, recalled Rushi Vyas, a graduate student who is working with Tentzeris and graduate student Vasileios Lakafosis on several projects.

“We can now print circuits that are capable of functioning at up to 15 GHz — 60 GHz if we print on a polymer,” Vyas said. “So we have seen a frequency operation improvement of two orders of magnitude.”

The researchers believe that self-powered, wireless paper-based sensors will soon be widely available at very low cost. The resulting proliferation of autonomous, inexpensive sensors could be used for applications that include:

• Airport security: Airports have both multiple security concerns and vast amounts of available ambient energy from radar and communications sources. These dual factors make them a natural environment for large numbers of wireless sensors capable of detecting potential threats such as explosives or smuggled nuclear material.

• Energy savings: Self-powered wireless sensing devices placed throughout a home could provide continuous monitoring of temperature and humidity conditions, leading to highly significant savings on heating and air-conditioning costs. And unlike many of today’s sensing devices, environmentally friendly paper-based sensors would degrade quickly in landfills.

• Structural integrity: Paper or polymer-based sensors could be placed throughout various types of structures to monitor stress. Self-powered sensors on buildings, bridges or aircraft could quietly watch for problems, perhaps for many years, and then transmit a signal when they detected an unusual condition.

• Food and perishable-material storage and quality monitoring: Inexpensive sensors on foods could scan for chemicals that indicate spoilage and send out an early warning if they encountered problems.

• Wearable bio-monitoring devices: This emerging wireless technology could become widely used for autonomous observation of patient medical issues.

Pentagon Still Playing Catch-Up With Bomb Makers by Stew Magnuson

Explosive ordnance disposal team leaders say their technology is behind the curve

The U.S. military’s cadre of bomb disposal technicians needs lighter equipment, the ability to detect explosives at stand-off distances and their sensors consolidated into one handheld device.
But most of all, they want to feel that their technology is putting them one step ahead of the insurgents who are planting the improvised explosive devices that are wounding and killing U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Instead — when it comes to tools that can defeat IEDs — the Defense Department has been playing a game of catch-up for the past 10 years.

“Our acquisition process inside the Department of Defense does not have the agility to keep up with our enemy’s threat,” said Capt. Dan Coleman of the Navy expeditionary warfare division and a former officer at the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization.

Requirements for defeating, detecting or protecting troops from IEDs must go through a bureaucratic approval process, the joint capability integration development system, fight for funding and then — after a long wait — the explosive ordnance disposal teams finally receive what they asked for, he said.

By that time, “our enemy is going to be three or four more … cycles ahead of that solution that we have just fielded to the war fighter,” Coleman said at a National Defense Industrial Association-Explosive Ordnance Disposal Memorial Foundation conference in Fort Walton Beach, Fla.

The number of EOD technicians is relatively small — about 5,500 spread out across the four services. Most of them “self-select” to join the units. Their deeds have been celebrated in the Academy Award-winning film, The Hurt Locker.

While they are few in number, their impact on the battlefield is crucial, said Army Col. Marue “MO” Quick, chief of the EOD and humanitarian mine action at the office of the secretary of defense’s special operations/low intensity conflict division.

IEDs were the weapon of choice in Iraq, and the tactic has made its way to Afghanistan. In both wars, the majority of combat deaths and injuries are a result of these bombs, she said.

Meanwhile, in the 12-month period from May 2010 to this year’s conference, 20 bomb technicians lost their lives in combat, and 94 were wounded, Quick said. EOD technicians have responded to some 112,000 calls for their services in Iraq and 45,000 in Afghanistan, she added.

While Quick, Coleman and other speakers said the long wars have resulted in EOD forces being the best equipped and most experienced since the specialty emerged during World War II, there is still a constant need to keep pace with new tactics being employed by the bomb makers.

“While we have made tremendous progress and significant improvements in equipment and training over the last 10 years, we must remain vigilant and focused in staying in front of the dynamic and evolving nature of our enemy’s threat,” Quick said.

Coleman put it in more blunt terms: “We can’t go back to shooting behind the duck in terms of technology to defeat this IED threat.”

The research and development community needs to get ahead of the curve and look at the potential ways enemies will use bombs in the future. As a Navy officer, for example, Coleman said he worries about submersible IEDs, a threat that has not emerged, but could someday.

“In the last 10 years we have come from being underfunded, under-resourced, and under-equipped to catching up to the fight,” said Coleman. But that is what it is: a game of catch-up, he added.

Col. Dick Larry, chief of the adaptive Counter-IED/EOD solutions division at the Department of the Army headquarters, said, “Our adversary changes quicker than we do.”

An insurgent “has no bureaucracy. He can do things much quicker than I can do. Whenever I come up with a new jammer, I’ve got to look three moves ahead. What have I forced him to do now that I have this new jammer?” said Larry.

The services’ bomb technicians have several tools to help them with their inherently dangerous work. The radio-frequency jammers to which Larry referred prevent insurgents from detonating bombs through the airwaves. Bomb suits provide some protection in the event that an IED explodes. Robots can provide a view of a bomb from a safe distance, and their manipulators can sometimes be used to render them safe without the specialists needing to put on the cumbersome suits. Metal detectors have been around since World War II. Recently, ground penetrating radar, which can see nonmetallic shapes, have been integrated onto the metal detectors. Explosives used to detonate IEDs in a controlled manner are also employed.

EOD specialists also gather evidence that is turned over to units such as Joint Task Force Paladin, which goes after the networks of bomb makers and those who fund the operations.

The Afghanistan surge is an example of how the Defense Department is yet again playing catch-up with insurgents who use improvised explosives.

In Iraq, there was a nonstop, deadly game between the bombers, who constantly changed the types of detonation triggers, and organizations such as JIEDDO, which was stood up in 2006 to respond to the rapidly rising casualty toll. The triggers and bombs became more and more sophisticated. Simple command wires evolved to remotely controlled devices. When jammers were fielded, insurgents switched to commercially available technologies such as garage door openers which did not rely on radio frequencies. At one point, U.S. military officials counted 90 methods to trigger a roadside bomb.

Eventually, the explosives themselves became more potent. Explosively formed projectiles, designed to penetrate up-armored vehicles, arrived in theater.

As operations in Iraq drew down, and the Afghan surge picked up, the Defense Department’s counter-IED enterprise was again behind the curve, several speakers at the conference said.
Afghan insurgents turned the clock back and began employing “pressure plate explosives,” or victim-activated bombs, an improvised landmine that relies on a person or vehicle stepping or driving on it to trigger the device. Jammers and command-wire detectors do nothing to defeat them. Tragically, Afghan civilians step on the mines as well.

“The threat is very complex in a rudimentary way. I’m not trying to be facetious when I say that,” said Col. Leo Bradley, commander of the Army’s 71st Ordnance Group at Fort Carson, Colo.

Afghan IEDs have a low metallic signature, often employing wood as a casing. They are not technologically sophisticated and use materials that are readily available, he said. They are difficult to find using standard mine detectors that seek out ferrous metals.

“While it looks crude, it’s actually quite sophisticated and matched asymmetrically to what our detection capabilities are,” Bradley said.

The explosives being used include a variety of ordnance, or homemade explosives with a variety of chemical signatures. The triggers “could be electronic or non-electronic. The list goes on and on and on,” he added.

To develop sensors that can identify the key components is a tough technological challenge. “An improvised explosive device is just that, it’s improvised. It doesn’t have a standardized form. You have to be able to identify something that could look like anything … It is a wicked problem.”

The explosives are sometimes made from ammonium nitrate, a common fertilizer found throughout the region. It was most famously employed in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. Today, the chemical is banned in Afghanistan in an effort to reduce the amount of material on hand. How effective that ban is in a country where smuggling is rampant is unknown.

Sensors that can pick up nitrate-based explosives are relatively inexpensive and a mature technology. But a field covered in fertilizer creates a lot of clutter. Navy Cmdr. Todd Siddall, deputy commander of Coalition Joint Task Force Paladin, the organization in charge of defeating bomb-making networks in Afghanistan, acknowledged that farmers still use it.

“Are they bad guys? No they are just out there trying to earn a living,” he said.

EOD teams have not only had to contend with changes in enemy tactics, but those being ordered by U.S. Central Command. Navy Capt. Frederick E. Gaghan, chief of the technology requirements division at JIEDDO, said new counter-insurgency strategies that require troops to leave their vehicles and go on foot patrols, also caught the organization off guard. Dismounted operations have resulted in a higher casualty rate, he said.

“We are trying to respond to that,” he added. “One of the issues we have had is trying to identify in advance what the war fighters requirements are,” he said.

Siddall said there are now 14 different handheld devices fielded in Afghanistan used to detect improvised explosive devices. Most of them work well, but imagine a dismounted operation where an EOD team comprising three personnel must carry sensors, a small robot, plastic explosives used to detonate bombs they discover, a radio frequency jammer, not to mention food, water, weapons and ammunition, he said.

Sensors carried into the field include the metal detectors, ground-penetrating radar and a device designed to find hidden tripwires. With all that loading down EOD personnel, the 90-pound protective bomb suits are being left behind, said Siddall. Units have been given lighter robots, but they are not as capable as the larger models, he added.

Coleman said: “We have got to do everything we can to drive down that weight.”

“We are backing into the future. We are meeting today’s needs and today’s gaps as best we can, but we’re not looking over our shoulder to find out what tomorrow’s fight is going to be,” he said.

The EOD community will have to do this in a time of constrained resources, he added. JIEDDO, when he served there, could spend a lot of money to bring forth new counter-IED technology. It didn’t matter how much it cost. Schedule was the primary driver. As long as a vendor could deliver a solution to solve a problem quickly, the funding was there. Now, with fiscal pressures, JIEDDO will be saying, “we need it now, but we won’t be able to pay more,” Coleman said.

Ghagan said JIEDDO will adapt accordingly as its fiscal situation changes. But he believed the organization will continue to exist as long as the improvised explosive threat is around. Globally, the scourge continues unabated, he noted. Putting Iraq and Afghanistan aside, there were about 400 IED incidents every month in 2010 with Pakistan, India, Somalia and Thailand topping the list. Put Iraq and Afghanistan back into the equation, then there were more than 11,500 incidents last year, Ghagan said.

As for responsiveness, JIEDDO does have special working groups that look at future and emerging threats such as the use of lasers as triggering devices, various maritime IEDs “and other things we can’t discuss,” he said.

He pointed to statistics that indicated that JIEDDO’s efforts in Afghanistan are having an impact. While the number of bomb emplacements from October to May held steady, the number of “effective” attacks — ones that caused harm — dropped from 21 percent to 16 percent. While that may not seem like a large decrease, “The drop in a single percentage point means someone is coming home safe,” he added.

Meanwhile, JIEDDO has put out a request for information for robots that can move ahead of dismounted troops and trigger pressure plate explosives before they can do harm. The organization is trying to leverage work done by several Defense Department labs that have developed leader-follower drones designed to carry equipment. It wants to know if this work could be adapted for robots that would move ahead of foot patrols instead of following them. But he acknowledged that fielding such a capability would take many months.

A vendor who asked not to be named because his organization is responding to the RFI, said it will be a hard problem — especially if these robots are intended to be expendable and therefore, inexpensive. A typical ground robot also would either have to be heavy enough to set off an improvised landmine or have some kind of attachment, like a mallet, that would pound the ground.

To get ahead of insurgents’ changing tactics, Edwin Bundy, program manager for EOD programs at the office of the secretary of defense’s combating terrorism technical support office, said he is looking at an Australian program that organizes “fly-away” teams. When a new IED threat emerges, a group of experts is assembled that can travel quickly to investigate and determine what possible solutions can be applied to neutralize the problem.

They can bring back technical requirements based on the operational context that the bombs are in. For example, soil conditions are a factor when it comes to rendering roadside bombs safe. A soil expert could be part of the team.

They may know of a technology that could provide an 80 percent solution in the short term. They also would know what existing technologies are out of reach.

“We would all love to have Tricorder but that is a long ways off,” Bundy said.

Hardwire by Greg Latshaw

Company CEOs draw their inspiration differently, and for George Tunis of Hardwire LLC in Pocomoke City, it’s a jagged piece of metal shrapnel that moves him.

“We keep that around because it helps remind us what those guys are faced with,” said Tunis, the company founder who keeps the black fragment as a visual reminder of the damage that improvised explosive devices can do to American forces in the Middle East.

Founded in 2002, Hardwire is primarily an armor builder, making lightweight, bomb-resistant armor for uses in everything from military vehicles to roofing on Green Zone buildings. From the leftover materials, Hardwire has been making bulletproof clipboards and donating them to Lower Shore law enforcement agencies.

Hardwire also makes armor to protect American bridges from terrorist attacks and makes ultrastrong fabrics that strengthen the structural integrity of buildings. The steel fabrics are especially popular for very old buildings and for structures in earthquake-prone zones.

Hardwire has now teamed up with Humvee maker AM General to make “chimney” upgrades to the vehicles. The design vents the blast from bombs detonated under the Humvee upward, through the center of the vehicle and past the crew inside.

“Our job is to try to stay ahead of the enemy,” Tunis said.

The secret of Hardwire’s armor is the strength of its material: a type of fiber called Dyneema.

Tunis said Dyneema fibers are stronger than spider silk, two-and-a-half times stronger than Kevlar and so light that they float. Hardwire gets Dyneema in by the rolls and presses it with two machines that exert up to 25 million pounds of force, thus strengthening its properties, he said.

DSM, a chemical company based in the Netherlands, makes Dyneema at a plant in Greenville, N.C.

How can the material stop a .44- caliber bullet, even when it’s only as thick as a clipboard? “The material has the highest speed of sound. It spreads the force of the bullet out faster. That’s what makes it so special. I just find it fascinating,” Tunis said.

The company has donated hundreds of clipboards to law enforcement agencies across the Lower Shore. The clipboards, which weigh less than a pound, are made from the leftovers of the war zone armor material.

Firearm experts with the Ocean City Police Department and Wicomico County Sheriff’s Office have tested their clipboards at firing ranges. A single clipboard was shot by different handguns, and even took a hit from a 12-gauge shotgun. The clipboard crumpled but did not break.

“After watching this take five separate rounds, and none of them penetrating, going anywhere from a 9-millimeter to one of the strongest handguns in the world, a .44 Magnum, without penetration, I’m extremely impressed,” said Lt. Todd Richardson, who had his experience shooting the clipboard filmed.

Wicomico Sheriff Mike Lewis said the clipboard is like a shield that can block close-range gunshots. His office received 100 clipboards, enough to cover every single deputy.

“It adds an extra level of protection. Many police are gunned down on traffic stops. They have no protection other than maybe some body armor for their chest,” Lewis said.

At 54 employees strong, the profit-sharing Hardwire isn’t afraid of the giant defense contractors.

“We love being David against Goliath. Our advantage is speed and creativity over what we consider the establishment,” Tunis said.

Tunis said he chose to locate the company in Pocomoke City because there wasn’t any industrial space in Ocean City. Their facility is located across the street from homes and is at a site where the former Campbell’s Soup factory once stood.

“Pocomoke picked me,” Tunis said, adding that company officials are within a half-day’s drive when they must travel to the Pentagon to meet with top military officials — or to Aberdeen Proving Ground to have their products blown up.

Because of the secretive nature of the defense industry, Tunis declined to elaborate on other projects under development, but hinted at several new ones in the pipeline.

For that same reason, Hardwire would not disclose which bridges it has equipped with bomb-resistant materials. Skip Ebaugh, the company vice president, said the armor protects critical elements such as cables and cable abutments.

“We have successfully protected numerous bridges throughout the Northeast, including in New York City,” Ebaugh said.

In addition to bridges, Hardwire products are used to strengthen buildings.

Paolo Casadei, the technical director of FIDIA Technical Global Services in Perugia, Italy, leads a team of engineers who have retrofitted old buildings in Italy with Hardwire products.

Casadei said the most famous structure to receive an upgrade is located in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence, although hospitals, schools and public structures have also been upgraded.

He said buildings must be retrofitted, in part, because “all Italian territory and most of Mediterranean countries are earthquake-prone zones, so due to their age and sometimes poor design and construction,” Casadei said by email.

Nano-research opens way to everlasting battery from RMIT University and RMIT Microplatforms Research Group

In a crucial step towards the development of self-powering portable electronics, RMIT University researchers have for the first time characterised the ability of piezoelectric thin films to turn mechanical pressure into electricity.

The pioneering result has been published in the leading materials science journal, Advanced Functional Materials.

Lead co-author Dr Madhu Bhaskaran said the research combined the potential of piezoelectrics – materials capable of converting pressure into electrical energy – and the cornerstone of microchip manufacturing, thin film technology.

“The power of piezoelectrics could be integrated into running shoes to charge mobile phones, enable laptops to be powered through typing or even used to convert blood pressure into a power source for pacemakers – essentially creating an everlasting battery,” Dr Bhaskaran said.

“The concept of energy harvesting using piezoelectric nanomaterials has been demonstrated but the realisation of these structures can be complex and they are poorly suited to mass fabrication.

“Our study focused on thin film coatings because we believe they hold the only practical possibility of integrating piezoelectrics into existing electronic technology.”

The Australian Research Council-funded study assessed the energy generation capabilities of piezoelectric thin films at the nanoscale, for the first time precisely measuring the level of electrical voltage and current – and therefore, power – that could be generated.

Dr Bhaskaran co-authored the study with Dr Sharath Sriram, within RMIT’s Microplatforms Research Group, which is led by Professor Arnan Mitchell. The pair collaborated with Australian National University’s Dr Simon Ruffell on the research.

“With the drive for alternative energy solutions, we need to find more efficient ways to power microchips, which are the building blocks of everyday technology like the smarter phone or faster computer,” Dr Bhaskaran said.

“The next key challenge will be amplifying the electrical energy generated by the piezoelectric materials to enable them to be integrated into low-cost, compact structures.”

The study was published in Volume 21, Issue 12 of Advanced Functional Materials.

Secret Weapon: High-value Target Teams as an Organizational Innovation by Christopher J. Lamb and National Defense University

[PDF] Secret Weapon: High-value Target Teams as an Organizational

File Format: PDF/Adobe Acrobat – Quick View
by CJ Lamb – Related articles
National Defense University Press. Washington, D.C.. March 2011. By Christopher J. Lamb and Evan Munsing. Secret Weapon: High-value Target Teams as…/Strategic-Perspectives-4.pdf

Terrorist-Criminal Pipelines and Criminalized States: Emerging Alliances by Douglas Farah

On July 1, 2010, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York unsealed an indictment that outlined the rapid expansion of operations of transnational criminal organizations and their growing, often short-term strategic alliances with terrorist groups. These little-understood transcontinental alliances pose new security threats to the United States, as well as much of Latin America, West Africa, and Europe.

The indictment showed drug-trafficking organizations (DTOs) in Colombia and Venezuela— including the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), a designated terrorist organization by the United States and European Union—had agreed to move several multiton loads of cocaine through Liberia en route to Europe.

The head of Liberian security forces, who is also the son of the president, negotiated the transshipment deals with a Colombian, a Russian, and three West Africans. According to the indictment, two of the loads (one of 4,000 kilos and one of 1,500 kilos) were to be flown to Monrovia from Venezuela and Panama, respectively. A third load of 500 kilos was to arrive aboard a Venezuelan ship. In exchange for transshipment rights, the drug traffickers agreed to pay in both cash and product.

What the drug traffickers did not know was that the head of the security forces with whom they were dealing was acting as an informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and had recorded all conversations, leaving the clearest body of evidence to date of the growing ties between established designated Latin American terrorist organizations/drug cartels and emerging West African criminal syndicates that move cocaine northward to lucrative and growing markets in Europe and the former Soviet Union.1 The West African criminal syndicates, in turn, are often allied and cooperate in illicit smuggling operations with operatives of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a radical Islamist group that has declared its allegiance to Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda.

In recent years, the group has relied primarily on kidnappings for ransom to finance its activities and is estimated by U.S. and European officials to have an annual budget of about $10 million.

An ongoing relationship with the FARC and other DTOs from Latin America to protect cocaine shipments into Europe would exponentially increase the AQIM revenue stream, and with it, operational capacity. Other cases show that AQIM would transport cocaine to Spain for the price of $2,000 a kilo. Had the proposed arrangement been in place for the 1,500-kilo load passing through Liberia, the terrorist group would have reaped $3 million in one operation. Had it been the 4,000-kilo load, the profit of $8 million would have almost equaled the current annual budget.

AQIM’s stated goal is to overthrow the Algerian state and, on a broader level, to follow al Qaeda’s strategy of attacking the West, particularly Europe. The ability to significantly increase its operating budget would facilitate recruiting, purchasing of weapons, and the ability to carry larger and more sophisticated attacks across a broader theater. It would also empower AQIM to share resources with al Qaeda and other radical Islamist groups in Africa and elsewhere, increasing the operational capacity to attack the United States and other targets.

The central aspect that binds these disparate organizations and networks, which in aggregate make up the bulk of nonstate armed actors, is the informal (meaning outside legitimate state control and competence) “pipeline” or series of overlapping pipelines that these operations need to move products, money, weapons, personnel, and goods. These pipelines are perhaps best understood as a series of recombinant chains whose links can merge and separate as necessary to meet the best interests of the networks involved. Nonstate armed actors in this article are defined as:

  • terrorist groups motivated by religion, politics, or ethnic forces
  • transnational criminal organizations, both structured and disaggregated
  • militias that control “black hole” or “stateless” sectors of one or more national territories
  • insurgencies, which have more well-defined and specific political aims within a particular national territory, but may operate from outside of that national territory.

Each of these groups has different operational characteristics that must be understood in order to comprehend the challenges that they pose.2 It is also important to note that these distinctions are far blurrier in practice, with few groups falling neatly into one category or even two. Insurgencies in Colombia and Peru are also designated terrorist groups by the United States and other governments, and they participate in parts of the transnational criminal structure. These emerging hybrid structures change quickly, and the pace of change has accelerated in the era of instantaneous communication, the Internet, and the criminalization of religious and political groups.

What links terrorist and criminal organizations together are the shadow facilitators who understand how to exploit the seams in the international legal and economic structure, and who work with both terrorist and criminal organizations. These groups use the same pipelines and the same illicit structures, and exploit the same state weaknesses. Of the 43 Foreign Terrorist Organizations listed by the Department of State, the DEA states that 19 have clearly established ties to DTOs, and many more are suspected of having such ties.3

While the groups that overlap in different pipeline structures are not necessarily allies, and in fact occasionally are enemies, they often make alliances of convenience that are short-lived and shifting. Even violent drug cartels, which regularly take part in bloody turf battles, frequently engage in truces and alliances, although most end when they are no longer mutually beneficial or the balance of power shifts among them.

An example of the changing balance of power is that of Los Zetas, a group of special operations soldiers in Mexico who became hit men for the Gulf Cartel before branching out and becoming a separate organization, often now in direct conflict with their former bosses of the Gulf organization.

Another case that illustrates the breadth of the emerging alliances among criminal and terrorist groups is Operation Titan, executed by Colombian and U.S. officials in 2008 and still ongoing. Colombian and U.S. officials, after a 2-year investigation, dismantled a DTO that stretched from Colombia to Panama, Mexico, the United States, Europe, and the Middle East. Most of the drugs originated with the FARC in Colombia, and some of the proceeds were traced through a Lebanese expatriate network to fund Hizballah, a radical Shi’ite Muslim terrorist organization that enjoys the state sponsorship of Iran and Syria.4

Colombian and U.S. officials allege that one of the key money launderers in the structure, Chekry Harb (also known as “Taliban”), acted as the central go-between among Latin American DTOs and Middle Eastern radical groups, primarily Hizballah. Among the groups participating in Harb’s operation in Colombia were members of the Northern Valley Cartel, right-wing paramilitary groups, and Marxist FARC.

This mixture of enemies and competitors working through a common facilitator or in loose alliance for mutual benefit is a pattern that is becoming common—and one that significantly complicates the ability of law enforcement and intelligence operatives to combat, as multiple recent transcontinental cases demonstrate.

In late 2010, the DEA used confidential informants in Mali to pose as FARC representatives seeking to move cocaine through the Sahel region. Three men claiming to belong to AQIM said the radical Islamists would protect the cocaine shipments, leading to the first indictment ever of al Qaeda affiliates on narcoterrorism charges.5 Those claiming to be AQIM associates were willing to transport hundreds of kilos of cocaine across the Sahara Desert to Spain for the price of $2,000 per kilo.6 That case came just 4 months after Malian military found a Boeing 727 abandoned in the desert after unloading an estimated 20 tons of cocaine, clear evidence that large shipments are possible. The flight originated in Venezuela.7

In another indication of cross-pollination among criminal organizations, in late 2010, Ecuadorian counterdrug officials announced the dismantling of a particularly violent gang of cocaine traffickers, led by Nigerians who were operating in a neighborhood near the international airport in the capital of Quito. According to Ecuadorian officials, the gang, in addition to controlling the sale of cocaine in one of Quito’s main districts, was recruiting “mules” or drug carriers to carry several kilos at a time to their allied network based in Amsterdam to distribute throughout Europe.

The Nigerian presence was detected because they brought a new level of violence to the drug game in Quito, such as beheading competitors. They were allegedly acquiring the drugs from Colombian DTOs.8

Because of the clandestine nature of the criminal and terrorist activities, designed to be as opaque as possible, we must start from the assumption that whatever is known of specific operations along the criminal-terrorist pipeline represents merely a snapshot of events, not a definitive record, and it is often out of date by the time it is understood.

Both the actors and territory (or portion of the pipelines they control) are constantly in flux, meaning that tracking them in a meaningful way is difficult at best. As shown by the inter-and intra-cartel warfare in Mexico, smaller subgroups can either overthrow the existing order inside their own structures or break off and form entirely new structures. At that time, they can break existing alliances and enter new ones, depending on the advantages of a specific time, place, and operation.

The Criminalized State

The cases above show the connectivity among these disparate groups operating along different geographic parts of the overall criminal-terrorist pipeline. Rather than operating in isolation, these groups have complicated but significant interactions with each other based primarily on the ability of each actor or set of actors to provide a critical service to another, while profiting mutually from the transactions. Many of the groups operate in what have traditionally been called “ungoverned” or “stateless” regions. However, in many of these cases, the groups worked directly with the government or have become the de facto governing force in the areas they occupy.

This is an important shift from the traditional ways of looking at stateless areas, but offers a prism that provides a useful way of understanding alternatively governed (nonstate) regions and the interconnected threat that they pose to the United States.

There are traditional categories for measuring state performance developed by Robert Rotberg and others in the wake of state failures at the end of the Cold War. The general premise is that “[n]ation-states fail because they are convulsed by internal violence and can no longer deliver positive political goods to their inhabitants.”9 These traditional categories of states are:

  • strong, or able to control its territory and offer quality political goods to its people
  • weak, or filled with social tensions, and the state with a limited monopoly on the use of force
  • failed, or in a state of conflict, with a predatory ruler and no state monopoly on the use of force
  • collapsed, or no functioning state institutions, and a vacuum of authority.10

This conceptualization, while useful, is limited. Of more use is viewing those alternatively governed spaces as existing “where territorial state control has been voluntarily or involuntarily ceded in whole or part to actors other than the relevant legally recognized sovereign authorities.”11

It is important to note that the “ungoverned” regions under discussion, as implied in the definition above, while out of the direct control of a state government, are not truly “ungoverned spaces.” In fact, nonstate actors exercise a significant degree of control over the regions, and that control may occasionally be contested by state forces. The underlying concepts of positive and negative sovereignty developed by Robert H. Jackson are helpful in this discussion because they give a useful lens to examine the role of the state in specific parts of its national territory.12

These regions, in fact, are governed by non-state actors who have, through force or popular support (or a mixture of both), been able to impose their decisions and norms, creating alternate power structures that directly challenge the state, often in the absence of the state. The Federation of American Scientists refers to these groups as “para-state actors.”13 Regardless of the terminology, the absence of a state presence or a deeply corrupted state presence should not be construed as a lack of a functioning government.

This definition allows for a critical distinction, still relatively undeveloped in current literature, between nations where the state has little or no power in certain areas and may be fighting to assert that control, and nations where the state in fact has a virtual monopoly on power and the use of force, but turns the state into a functioning criminal enterprise for the benefit of a small elite.

The latter is similar to the “captured state” concept developed by Phil Williams,14 but differs in important ways. Captured states are taken hostage by criminal organizations, often through intimidation and threats, giving the criminal enterprise access to some parts of the state apparatus. A criminal state, however, counts on the integration of the state’s leadership into the criminal enterprise and the use of state facilities (for example, aircraft registries, facilitation of passports and diplomatic status on members of the criminal enterprise, accounts in the central bank, and End User Certificates to acquire weapons).

A further variation of the criminal state occurs when a functioning state essentially turns over or franchises out part of its territory to nonstate groups to carry out their own agenda with the blessing and protection of the central government or a regional power. Both state and nonstate actors share in the profits from the criminal activity.

Both of these models, but particularly the model of states franchising out their territory to nonstate actors, are growing in Latin America through the sponsorship of the “Bolivarian Revolution” (led by Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, including Evo Morales of Bolivia, Rafael Correa of Ecuador, and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua) of nonstate armed groups. The principal criminal activity providing the revenues is cocaine trafficking, and the most important (but not sole) recipient of state sponsorship is the FARC.

The traditional four-tier categorization of states suffers from another significant omission. The model presupposes that “stateless regions” are largely confined within the borders of a single state. This is, in reality, hardly ever the case. Alternatively governed spaces generally overlap into several states because of the specific advantages offered by border regions. The definition of a geographic “black hole” is useful in conceptualizing the use of border regions and the downward spirals they can generate in multiple states without causing the collapse of any of them: “A black hole is a geographic entity where, due to the absent or ineffective exercise of state governance, criminal and terrorist elements can deploy activities in support of, or otherwise directly relating to criminal or terrorist acts, including the act itself.”15

Photo of Hugo ChavezVenezuela under Hugo Chávez fits model of criminalized state franchising its territory to nonstate actors such as FARCAgência Brasil

For example, Latin America is almost absent from leading indexes of failed states. This is in large part because the indexes are state-centric and not designed to look at regions that spill over across several borders but do not cause any one state to collapse. For example, only Colombia (ranked 41) and Bolivia (ranked 51) are among the top 60 countries in the “Failed States Index 2009,” published by Foreign Policy and the Fund for Peace.16 Yet the governability of certain areas in the border regions of Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize; the Rio San Miguel border region between Ecuador and Colombia; the Guajira Peninsula on the Venezuela-Colombia border; most of the border regions of Central America; and many other regions clearly qualify as black holes. This proliferation of black holes in border regions can be explained because of the advantages offered by border regions.

As Rem Korteweg and David Ehrhardt state, terrorists (and the same thing is true for transnational criminal organizations):

seek out the soft spots, the weak seams of the Westphalian nation-state and the international order that it has created. Sometimes the territory’s boundaries coincide with the entire territory of a state, as with Somalia, but mostly this is not the case. Traditional weak spots, like border areas, are more likely. Terrorist [and criminal] organizations operate on the fringes of this Westphalian system, in the grey areas of territoriality.17

A 2001 Naval War College study insight-fully described some of the reasons for the occurrence of cross-border black holes in terms of “commercial” and “political” insurgencies. These are applicable to organized criminal groups as well and have grown in importance since then:

The border zones offer obvious advantages for political and economic insurgencies. Political insurgents prefer to set up in adjacent territories that are poorly integrated, while the commercial insurgents favor active border areas, preferring to blend in amid business and government activity and corruption. The border offers a safe place to the political insurgent and easier access to communications, weapons, provisions, transport, and banks.

For the commercial insurgency, the frontier creates a fluid, trade-friendly environment. Border controls are perfunctory in “free trade” areas, and there is a great demand for goods that are linked to smuggling, document fraud, illegal immigration, and money laundering.

For the political insurgency, terrain and topography often favor the narco-guerrilla. Jungles permit him to hide massive bases and training camps, and also laboratories, plantations, and clandestine runways. The Amazon region, huge and impenetrable, is a clear example of the shelter that the jungle areas give. On all of Colombia’s borders—with Panama, Ecuador, Brazil, and Venezuela—jungles cloak illegal activity.18

In parts of Guatemala and along much of the U.S.-Mexico border, these groups have directly and successfully challenged the state’s sovereignty and established governing mechanisms of their own, relying on violence, corruption, and largesse to maintain control. As the “Joint Operating Environment 2008” from the Joint Chiefs of Staff stated:

A serious impediment to growth in Latin America remains the power of criminal gangs and drug cartels to corrupt, distort, and damage the region’s potential. The fact that criminal organizations and cartels are capable of building dozens of disposable submarines in the jungle and then using them to smuggle cocaine, indicates the enormous economic scale of this activity. This poses a real threat to the national security interests of the Western Hemisphere. In particular, the growing assault by the drug cartels and their thugs on the Mexican government over the past several years reminds one that an unstable Mexico could represent a homeland security problem of immense proportions to the United States.19

Control of broad swaths of land—increasingly including urban territory—by these non-state groups facilitates the movements of illegal products both northward and southward through the transcontinental pipeline, often through routes that appear to make little economic or logistical sense.

While the Venezuela–West Africa–Europe cocaine route seems circuitous when looking at a map, there are in fact economic and logistical rationales for the shift in drug trafficking patterns. West Africa offered significant comparative advantages; transiting illegal products through the region has been, until recently, virtually risk-free. Many countries in the region are still recovering from the horrendous violence of the resource wars that ravaged the region in the 1990s through the early years of this century.

The fragile governments, immersed in corruption and with few functioning law enforcement or judicial structures, are simply no match for the massive influx of drugs and the accompanying financial resources and violence. Guinea-Bissau, the former Portuguese colony, has been dubbed Africa’s first “narco-state,” and the consequences have been devastating. Dueling drug gangs have assassinated the president, army chief of staff, and other senior officials while plunging the nation into chaos.20

In addition to state weakness, West Africa offers the advantage of having longstanding smuggling networks or illicit pipelines to move products to the world market, be they conflict diamonds, illegal immigrants, massive numbers of weapons, or conflict timber. Those controlling these already established smuggling pipelines have found it relatively easy and profitable to absorb another lucrative product, such as cocaine, that requires little additional effort to move. In addition, there is a long history in West Africa of rival groups, or at least groups with no common agenda except for the desire for economic gain, to make deals when such contacts are viewed as mutually beneficial.

To illustrate how criminal and terrorist networks operate for mutual benefit in a criminalized state, we turn to two related cases that shed light on the relationship among different actors in such an environment.

Taylor in Liberia

At the height of his power from 1998– 2002, Charles Taylor allowed transnational organized crime groups from Russia, South Africa, Israel, and Ukraine to operate simultaneously in a territory the size of Maryland. At the same time, the terrorist groups Hizballah and al Qaeda were economically operational in Liberia, raising money for their parent organizations through associations with criminal groups. Most of the criminal activity revolved around the trade in diamonds (extracted from neighboring Sierra Leone) and in Liberian timber. In 2000, al Qaeda operatives entered the diamond trade, using Hizballah-linked diamond smuggling networks to move the stones and handle the proceeds. The relationship lasted until just before September 11, 2001.

This was possible largely because the Taylor government pioneered, to a level of sophistication, the model for the criminalized state in which the government is an active partner in the criminal enterprise. The president, directly engaged in negotiations with the criminal groups, authorized specific lines of effort for those actors, provided protection and immunity through the state, directly profited from the enterprises, and commingled those funds with other state revenue streams, erasing the distinctions among the state, criminal enterprise, and person of the president.

A key to the model was government control of points of interest to criminal organizations and others operating outside the international legal system for which they were willing to share profits. These included, among others, the ports of entry and exit, ensuring that those whom Taylor wanted to protect could enter and leave unimpeded; the passport registry, giving access to issuing passports, diplomatic passports, and nonexistent government titles and the accompanying immunity, to those authorized to do business; control of law enforcement and the military inside the country to ensure that the volatile internal situation did not affect the protected business operations; and access to resources that could be profitably exploited without fear of violence or unauthorized extortion.

When he became president, Taylor, building on the extensive relationships that he forged during his years in the bush, developed ties to organized criminal groups and terrorist organizations that allowed him to procure hundreds of tons of weapons from a broad range of groups and individuals. He also enriched himself. According to a 2005 study of Taylor’s finances, he generated about $105 million a year in extra-budgetary revenue to which he had direct access, some of which was moved through accounts opened in his name in New York banks and European financial institutions.

Taylor was, in effect, not president of a country but was controlling what Robert Cooper has called the “pre-modern state,” meaning territory where:

chaos is the norm and war is a way of life. Insofar as there is a government, it operates in a way similar to an organized crime syndicate. The pre-modern state may be too weak even to secure its home territory, let alone pose a threat internationally, but it can provide a base for non-state actors who may represent a danger in the post-modern world . . . notably drug, crime and terrorist syndicates.21

The same Hizballah operatives who aided al Qaeda’s diamond buying venture in Liberia were able to acquire significant amounts of sophisticated weapons for Taylor and his allies through a series of transactions with Russian arms dealers based in Guatemala and operating in Nicaragua and Panama. The primary facilitator of the deals was a retired Israeli officer living in Panama, who had a personal relationship with the Hizballah operative seeking the weapons. Both had worked for Mobutu Sese Seku, the long-ruling head of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). The Israeli provided the dictator with security while the Lebanese operative moved his diamonds to the black market.

The ability of Hizballah financial handlers to deal with a retired Israeli officer who has access to weapons while their respective organizations were waging war against each other in their respective homelands demonstrates just how flexible the pipelines can become.

In addition to this arms flow, Taylor used his illicit proceeds to buy a significant amount of weapons from the former Soviet republics. These weapons were procured and transported by Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer dubbed the “Merchant of Death” by European officials.

Bout and the New World Order

Viktor Bout, a former Soviet military intelligence official, became one of the world’s premier gray market weapons merchants, able to arm multiple sides of several conflicts in Africa, as well as both the Taliban and Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. But of particular interest here is his relationship with Taylor and how he made that connection, and the different, interlocking networks that made that relationship possible.

Bout made his mark by building an unrivaled air fleet that could deliver not only huge amounts of weapons but also sophisticated weapons systems and combat helicopters to armed groups. From the mid-1990s until his arrest in Thailand in 2008, Bout armed groups in Africa, Afghanistan, Colombia, and elsewhere.22

Bout’s relationship to Taylor and the West African conflicts in Liberia and Sierra Leone sheds light on how these networks operate and connect with criminal states, and the symbiotic relationships that develop.

Sanjivan Ruprah, a Kenyan citizen of Indian descent who emerged as a key influence broker in several of Africa’s conflicts, introduced Bout into Taylor’s inner circle, a move that fundamentally altered the supply of weapons to both Liberia and the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone, Taylor’s vicious proxy army that controlled important diamond fields. One of the favors Ruprah and Taylor offered Bout was the chance to register several dozen of his rogue aircraft in Liberia.

Ruprah had taken advantage of operating in a criminal state and used his access to Taylor to be named the Liberian government’s Global Civil Aviation Agent Worldwide in order to further Bout’s goals. This position gave Ruprah access to an aircraft and possible control of it. “I was asked by an associate of Viktor’s to get involved in the Aviation registry of Liberia as both Viktor and him wanted to restructure the same and they felt there could be financial gain from the same,” he has stated.23

Bout was seeking to use the Liberian registry to hide his aircraft because the registry, in reality run from Kent, England, allowed aircraft owners to obtain online an internationally valid Air Worthiness Certificate without having the aircraft inspected and without disclosing the names of the owners.24

Through his access to aircraft whose ownership he could hide through a shell game of shifting registries, and weapons in the arsenals of the former Soviet bloc, Bout was able to acquire and transport a much desired commodity—weapons—to service clients across Africa, Afghanistan, Colombia, and elsewhere. The weapons—including tens of thousands of AK–47 assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, tens of millions of rounds of ammunition, antiaircraft guns, landmines, and possibly surface-to-air missiles—were often exchanged directly for another commodity, primarily diamonds, but also columbite-tantalite (Coltan) and other minerals.

Bout mastered the art of leveraging the advantages offered by criminal states, registering his aircraft in Liberia and Equatorial Guinea, purchasing End User Certificates from Togo and other nations, and buying protection across the continent. For entrée into the circles of warlords, presidents, and insurgent leaders, Bout relied on a group of political fixers such as Ruprah.

The exchange of commodities such as diamonds for weapons moved illicitly in support of nonstate actors was largely not punishable because, while the activities violated United Nations sanctions, they were not specifically illegal in any particular jurisdiction. This vast legal loophole remains intact.25

Changing Landscapes

While the commodity for weapons trade was lucrative to the participants and costly in terms of human life and the financing of criminal and terrorist organizations, recent developments in the criminal-terrorist nexus have radically altered the historic equation of power and influence of nonstate actors and criminal states. The driving force in this reshaping of the landscape is the overlap of the drug trade, which increases by orders of magnitude the economic resources available to criminal operatives and their allies.

The numbers are striking. The “blood diamond” trade at the peak of the regional wars in West and Central Africa was valued at about $200 million a year, and was usually significantly below that. Timber added a few tens of millions more, but it is probable that the total amount of the illicit products extracted and sold or bartered on the international market was less than $300 million during peak years, and normally was substantially less. Yet it was enough to sustain wars for more than a decade and destroy the fabric of society of an entire region.

In contrast, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) conservatively estimates that 40 to 50 tons of cocaine, with an estimated value of $1.8 billion, passed through West Africa in 2007, and the amount is growing.26 U.S. Africa Command and other intelligence services estimate the amount of cocaine transiting West Africa is at least five times the UNODC estimate.27 But even using the most conservative estimate, the magnitude of the problem for the region is easy to see. Using UNODC figures, the only legal export from the region that would surpass the value of cocaine is cocoa exports from Côte d’Ivoire. If the higher numbers are used, cocaine would dwarf the legal exports of the region combined, and be worth more than the gross domestic product of several of the region’s nations.28

These emerging networks, vastly more lucrative with the introduction of cocaine, undermine the stability of entire regions of great strategic interest to the United States. The threat is posed by the illicit movement of goods (drugs, money, weapons, stolen cars) and people (illegal aliens, gang members, drug cartel enforcers) and the billions of dollars that these illicit activities generate in an area where states have few resources and little legal or law enforcement capacity.

As Antonio Maria Costa, the UNODC head, wrote, this epidemic of drugs and drug money flooding Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and elsewhere has become a security issue: “Drug money is perverting the weak economies of the region. . . . The influence that this buys is rotting fragile states; traffickers are buying favors and protection from candidates in elections.”29

Given this history, the broader dangers of the emerging overlap between criminal and terrorist groups that previously did not work together are clear. Rather than working in a business that could yield a few million dollars, for these groups the potential gains are now significantly more.

The new revenue streams are also a lifeline to Latin American nonstate actors that merge the criminal and the terrorist. The two principal beneficiaries are the FARC, now estimated as the world’s largest producer of cocaine, and the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico, with the world’s largest distribution network. Both pose a significant threat to regional stability in the Western Hemisphere and are direct threats to the United States.

U.S. and regional African officials state that members of both groups have been identified on the ground in West Africa and that the money used to purchase the product for onward shipment to Europe is remitted primarily to these two groups, often through offshore jurisdictions via European financial institutions.

Photo of coca plantEnormous revenue potential from cocaine trade means alliances between criminals and terrorists are likely to growWikipedia

This means that even as the U.S. cocaine market remains stable or shrinks modestly, these nonstate actors will continue to enjoy expanding financial bases as the European, African, and Asian markets expand. For the first time in the history of the drug war, the U.S. market may not be the defining market in the cocaine trade, although much of the proceeds of the cocaine trade will continue to flow to organizations wreaking havoc in the Western Hemisphere.30

The FARC, Venezuela, and Iran

While the transnational trafficking and financial operations of the Sinaloa Cartel are important, FARC alliances and actions offer an important look at the use of nonstate criminal/terrorist armed groups by a criminalized state. The well-documented links of Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution, led by President Chávez, to both Iran and the FARC, as well as the criminalization of the Venezuelan state under Chávez point to the evolution of the model described above in which a criminalized state franchises out part of its criminal enterprises to nonstate actors.

More worrisome from the U.S. perspective is the growing evidence of Chávez’s direct support for Hizballah, along with his ties to the FARC. These indicators include the June 18, 2008, U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designations of two Venezuelan citizens, including a senior diplomat, as Hizballah supporters. Several businesses were also sanctioned. Allegations included coordinating possible terrorist attacks and building Hizballah-sponsored community centers in Venezuela.31

OFAC has also designated numerous senior Venezuelan officials, including the heads of two national intelligence services, for direct support of the FARC in the acquisition of weapons and drug trafficking.32

The Chávez model of allying with state sponsors of terrorism such as Iran while sponsoring violent nonstate terrorist organizations involved in criminal activities and terrorism strongly resembles the template pioneered by Hizballah. In fact, the military doctrine of the Bolivarian Revolution explicitly embraces the radical Islamist model of asymmetrical, or fourth generation, warfare and its reliance on suicide bombings and different types of terrorism, including the use of nuclear weapons. This is occurring at a time when Hizballah’s presence in Latin America is growing and becoming more identifiable.33

The main book Chávez has adopted as his military doctrine is Peripheral Warfare and Revolutionary Islam: Origins, Rules and Ethics of Asymmetrical Warfare by the Spanish politician and ideologue Jorge Verstrynge.34 Although Verstrynge is not a Muslim and his book was not written directly in relation to the Venezuelan experience, it lauds radical Islam (as well as past terrorists such as Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, better known as “Carlos the Jackal”)35 for helping to expand the parameters of what irregular warfare should encompass, including the use of biological and nuclear weapons, along with the correlated civilian casualties among the enemy. Chávez has openly admitted his admiration for Sánchez, who is serving a life sentence in France for murder and terrorist acts.36

Central to Verstrynge’s idealized view of terrorists is the belief in the sacredness of the fighters to sacrifice their lives in pursuit of their goals. Before writing extensively on how to make chemical weapons and listing helpful places to find information on the manufacture of rudimentary nuclear bombs that “someone with a high school education could make,” Verstrynge writes:

We already know it is incorrect to limit asymmetrical warfare to guerrilla warfare, although it is important. However, it is not a mistake to also use things that are classified as terrorism and use them in asymmetrical warfare. And we have super terrorism, divided into chemical terrorism, bioterrorism (which uses biological and bacteriological methods), and nuclear terrorism, which means “the type of terrorism [that] uses the threat of nuclear attack to achieve its goals.”37

In a December 12, 2008, interview with Venezuelan state television, Verstrynge lauded Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda for creating a new type of warfare that is “de-territorialized, de-stateized and de-nationalized,” a war where suicide bombers act as “atomic bombs for the poor.”38 Chávez liked the book so much that he had a special pocket-sized edition printed and distributed to the officer corps with express orders that it be read cover to cover.

While there is only anecdotal evidence to date of the merging of the Bolivarian Revolution’s criminal-terrorist pipeline and the criminal-terrorist pipeline of radical Islamist groups (Hizballah in particular) supported by the Iranian regime, the possibility opens a series of new security challenges for the United States and its allies in Latin America.

What is clear is that Iran has greatly increased its diplomatic, economic, and intelligence presence in Latin America, an area where it has virtually no trade, no historic or cultural ties, and no obvious strategic interests. The sole points of convergence of the radical and reactionary theocratic Iranian government and the self-proclaimed socialist and progressive Bolivarian Revolution are an overt and often stated hatred for the United States and a shared view of the authoritarian state that tolerates little dissent and encroaches on all aspects of a citizen’s life.

Such a relationship between nonstate and state actors provides numerous benefits to both. In Latin America, for example, the FARC gains access to Venezuelan territory without fear of reprisals, to Venezuelan identification documents, and, perhaps most importantly, to routes for exporting cocaine to Europe and the United States while using the same routes to import quantities of sophisticated weapons and communications equipment. In return, the Chávez government can keep up military pressure on its most vocal opponent in the region, the Colombian government—a staunch U.S. ally whose government has been the recipient of significant amounts of military and humanitarian aid from the United States.

In addition, Chávez maintains his revolutionary credentials in the radical axis comprised of leftist populists and Islamic fundamentalists, primarily Iran. Perhaps equally important, his government is able to profit from the transit of cocaine and weapons through the national territory at a time when oil revenues are low and the budget is under significant stress.


The trend toward the merging of terrorist and criminal groups to mutually exploit new markets is unlikely to diminish. Both will continue to need the same facilitators, and both can leverage the relationship with the other to mutual benefit. This gives these groups an asymmetrical advantage over state actors, which are inherently more bureaucratic and less adaptable than nonstate actors.

Given the fragile or nonexistent judicial and law enforcement institutions in West Africa, the state tolerance or sponsorship of the drug trade by Venezuela and quiescent African states, and the enormous revenue stream that cocaine represents, it is likely such loose alliances will continue to grow. The human cost in West Africa, as recent past spasms of violence have shown, will be extraordinarily high, as will the impact on what little governance capability currently exists.

Europe and the United States will face a growing threat from the region, particularly from radical Islamist groups—those affiliated with al Qaeda and those, such as Hizballah, allied with Iran. Yet given the current budget constraints and economic situation, it is highly unlikely that additional resources from either continent will be allocated to the threat.

There are few options for putting the genie back in the bottle. Transnational criminal organizations and terrorist networks have proven themselves resilient and highly adaptable, while governments remain far less so. Governments have also consistently underestimated the capacity of these disparate and non-hierarchical organizations.

Human intelligence, perhaps the most difficult type to acquire, is vital to understanding the threat, how the different groups work together, and what their vulnerabilities are. A major vulnerability is the dependence of the Latin American drug traffickers on local African networks. To make the necessary alliances, cartel operatives are forced to function in unfamiliar terrain and in languages and cultures they do not know or understand. This creates significant opportunities for penetration of the operations, as the Liberian case shows.

Another element that is essential is the creation of functioning institutions in the most affected states that can both investigate and judicially prosecute transnational criminal organizations. The most efficient way to do this is through the creation of vetted police and military units and judicial corps that are specially trained and who can be protected from reprisals.

The almost universal mantra of judicial and police reform is valid, but it can only be realistically done in small groups that can then be expanded as time and resources permit. Most efforts are diluted to the point of uselessness by attempting to do everything at once. The Colombian experience in fighting drug trafficking organizations and the FARC is illustrative of this. After years of futility, the police, military, and judiciary were able to form small vetted units that have grown over time and, just as importantly, were able to work together.

Vetted units that are able to collect intelligence and operate in a relatively controlled environment, which can be monitored for corruption, are also vital and far more achievable than macro-level police reform. These are small steps, but ones that have a chance of actually working in a sustainable way. They do not require the tens of millions of dollars and large-scale human resource commitments that broader efforts do. And they can be easily expanded as resources permit.

But human intelligence and institution-building, operating in a vacuum, will have limited impact unless there is the will and ability to match the transnationalization of enforcement to the transnationalization of crime and terror. These groups thrive in the seams of the global system, while the global response has been a state-centric approach that matches the 20th century, not this one.

Without this type of human intelligence able to operate in relative safety through vetted units, the criminal and terrorist pipelines will continue not only to grow but also to develop the capacity to recombine more quickly and in ever more dangerous ways.


  1. Benjamin Weiser and William K. Rashbaum, “Liberian Officials Worked with U.S. Agency to Block Drug Traffic,” The New York Times, June 2, 2010.
  2. These typologies were developed and discussed more completely, including the national security implications of their growth, in Richard H. Shultz, Douglas Farah, and Itamara V. Lochard, Armed Groups: A Tier-One Security Priority, Occasional Paper 57 (U.S. Air Force Academy, CO: U.S. Air Force Institute for National Security Studies, September 2004).
  3. Drug Enforcement Agency Chief of Operations Michael Braun, speech to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, July 18, 2008, available at <>.
  4. While much of Operation Titan remains classified, there has been significant open source reporting in part because the Colombian government announced the most important arrests. See Chris Kraul and Sebastian Rotella, “Colombian Cocaine Ring Linked to Hezbollah,” The Los Angeles Times, October 22, 2008; and “Por Lavar Activos de Narcos y Paramilitares, Capturados Integrantes de Organización Internacional,” Fiscalía General de la Republica (Colombia), October 21, 2008.
  5. “Manhattan U.S. Attorney Charges Three al Qaeda Associates with Conspiring to Transport Cocaine through Africa for the FARC,” PR Newswire, December 18, 2009.
  6. Philip Sherwell, “Cocaine, Kidnapping and the al-Qaeda Cash Squeeze,” Sunday Telegraph, March 7, 2010.
  7. Jamie Doward, “Drug Seizures in West Africa Prompt Fears of Terrorist Links,” The Observer, November 29, 2009.
  8. “Quito y Buenos Aires, Ciudades preferidas para narcos nigerianos,” El Universo (Guayaquil, Ecuador), January 3, 2011.
  9. See, for example, Robert I. Rotberg, “Failed States, Collapsed States, Weak States: Causes and Indicators,” Failure and State Weakness in a Time of Terror (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, January 2003).
  10. Ibid.
  11. Anne L. Clunan et al., Ungoverned Spaces: Alternatives to State Authority in an Era of Softened Sovereignty (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010), 3.
  12. Robert H. Jackson, Quasi-states: Sovereignty, International Relations and the Third World (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990).
  13. The Federation of American Scientists lists 385 para-state actors across the globe; list available atirp/world/para/index.html>.
  14. See Bill Lahneman and Matt Lewis, “Summary of Proceedings: Organized Crime and the Corruption of State Institutions,” The Inn and Conference Center, University of Maryland, College Park, MD, November 18, 2002, available at.
  15. Rem Korteweg and David Ehrhardt, “Terrorist Black Holes: A Study into Terrorist Sanctuaries and Governmental Weakness,” Clingendael Centre for Strategic Studies, The Hague, November 2005, 26.
  16. See “The Failed States Index,” Foreign Policy (July–August 2009), 80–93.
  17. Korteweg and Ehrhardt, 22.
  18. Julio A. Cirino et al., “Latin America’s Lawless Areas and Failed States,” in Latin American Security Challenges, Newport Papers 21, ed. Paul D. Taylor (Newport, RI: Naval War College, 2001). Commercial insurgencies are defined as engaging in “for-profit organized crime without a predominant political agenda,” leaving unclear how that differs from groups defined as organized criminal organizations.
  19. U.S. Joint Forces Command, “Joint Operating Environment 2008: Challenges and Implications for the Future Joint Force,” November 25, 2008, 34.
  20. Author interviews with U.S. law enforcement officials. See also James Traub, “Africa’s Drug Problem,” New York Times Magazine, April 9, 2010.
  21. Robert Cooper, “Reordering the World: Post-Modern States,” The Foreign Policy Centre, April 2002, 18.
  22. For details of Bout’s global operations, see Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun, Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes and the Man Who Makes War Possible (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, 2007). In November 2010, Bout was extradited to the United States to stand trial for allegedly planning to sell weapons to a designated terrorist organization. See Chris McGreal, “Viktor Bout, Suspected Russian Arms Dealer, Extradited to New York,” The Guardian, November 16, 2010.
  23. Ruprah, email to author for Merchant of Death, 159.
  24. Farah and Braun, 159; and United Nations Security Council S/2000/1225 paras., 142–143.
  25. Farah and Braun.
  26. Antonio L. Mazzitelli, regional representative, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Regional Office for West and Central Africa, presentation at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, May 28, 2009.
  27. Peter D. Burgess, Counter Narcotics Project Officer, U.S. Africa Command, presentation at the
  28. Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, May 28, 2009.
  29. Extrapolated by the author from UNODC and U.S. Africa Command data.
  30. Antonio Maria Costa, “Cocaine Finds Africa,” The Washington Post, July 29, 2008, A17.
  31. Author interviews with U.S. and African counternarcotics officials, December 2010 and January 2011. 31 One of those designated, Ghazi Nasr al Din, served as the charge d’affaires of the Venezuelan embassy in Damascus, and then served in the Venezuelan embassy in London. According to the OFAC statement in late January 2006, al Din facilitated the travel of two Hizballah representatives of the Lebanese parliament to solicit donations and announce the opening of a Hizballah-sponsored community center and office in Venezuela. The second individual, Fawzi Kan’an, is described as a Venezuela-based Hizballah supporter and a “significant provider of financial support to Hizbollah.” He met with senior Hizballah officials in Lebanon to discuss operational issues, including possible kidnappings and terrorist attacks.
  32. Among those designated were Hugo Armando Carvajal, director of Venezuela’s Military Intelligence Directorate, for his “assistance to the FARC, (including) protecting drug shipments from seizure”; Henry de Jesus Rangel Silva, director of Venezuela’s Directorate of Intelligence and Prevention Services, for “materially assisting the narcotics activities of the FARC”; and Ramón Emilio Rodriguez Chacín, at the time Venezuela’s minister of interior and justice, described as “the Venezuelan government’s main weapons contact for the FARC.”
  33. In addition to Operation Titan, there have been numerous incidents of operatives directly linked to Hizballah being identified or arrested in Venezuela, Colombia, Guatemala, Aruba, and elsewhere in Latin America.
  34. Verstrynge, born in Morocco to Belgian and Spanish parents, began his political career on the far right of the Spanish political spectrum as a disciple of Manuel Fraga, and held several senior party posts with the Alianza Popular. By his own admission, he then migrated to the Socialist Party, but never rose through the ranks. He is widely associated with radical antiglobalization views and anti-U.S. rhetoric, repeatedly stating that the United States is creating a new global empire and must be defeated. Although he has no military training or experience, he has written extensively on asymmetrical warfare.
  35. It is worth noting that Chávez wrote to Ramírez Sánchez in 1999 expressing his admiration for the terrorist, signing off, “with profound faith in the cause and in the mission—now and forever.” The letter set off an international furor. See “Troops Get Provocative Book,” Miami Herald, November 11, 2005.
  36. Ian James, “Chavez Praises Carlos the Jackal,” Associated Press, November 21, 2009, available atamericas/chavez-praises-carlos-the-jackal-1825135.html>.
  37. Jorge Verstrynge, La guerra periférica y el Islam revolucionario: Orígenes, reglas y ética de la guerra asimétrica [Peripheral Warfare and Revolutionary Islam: Origins, Rules and Ethics of Asymmetrical Warfare] (Barcelona: El Viejo Topo, 2005), 56–57.
  38. Mariáno César Bartolomé, “Las Guerras Asimétricas y de Cuarta Generación Dentro Del Penasmiento Venezolano en Materia de Seguridad y Defensa [Asymmetrical and Fourth Generation Warfare in Venezuelan Security and Defense Thinking],” Military Review (January–February 2008), 51–62.

About the Author

Douglas Farah is a Senior Fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center.