There are numerous ways to identify people and just as many ways to foil that identification. The Pentagon has reportedly developed a new way to ID individuals that works from a distance and is harder to evade than other methods. The “Jetson” system uses a laser to measure a person’s heartbeat, which is apparently almost as distinctive as other biometric indicators.
Development of Jetson started after US Special Forces asked for a new way to identify targets from a distance. Tools like gait analysis and facial recognition have been valuable, but there are ways to evade them. For example, gait analysis doesn’t work if someone is standing still or seated, and it’s easy to block facial recognition with a mask or hilarious novelty fake mustache. No one’s thinking about lasers monitoring their cardiac signature.
There have long been infrared sensors that can monitor heart rate without physical contact. They do this by detecting changes in the signal reflectivity caused by blood flow. Jetson uses a more precise technology called laser vibrometry. When shone on a surface, the laser can track minute movements. Point it at someone’s chest, and it can track their cardiac activity.
According to the Pentagon’s Combatting Terrorism Technical Support Office, Jetson can be as much as 95 percent effective in identifying a person, and it works up to 200 meters away. The developers see no reason that distance couldn’t be pushed higher with more powerful lasers. It currently uses an off-the-shelf laser aimed primarily at testing wind turbines for dangerous vibration. The Pentagon added a custom gimbal mount that could keep the invisible laser dot trained on a target.
Currently, Jetson has some shortcomings that will keep it from replacing techniques like facial recognition and fingerprinting. For one, it takes about 30 seconds to get a good signal for comparison with a cardiac database. You need to have a database of cardiac signatures, too. Because of the lengthy analysis time, Jetson works best when the target is standing still or seated. The laser can collect readings through a shirt, but multiple layers and thicker garments like a jacket will block the signal.
In all likelihood, US forces will use Jetson in conjunction with established technology like gait analysis and facial recognition. If you put enough biometric markers together, it gets very hard to evade detection.
Top image credit: Getty Images