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Things like lightning fast DNA processing, biometrics recognition based on iris scans, thumbprint or voice patterns and video face recognition from vast distances seemed like science-fiction not so long ago.

The U.S Defense Department wants to make these abilities an everyday reality, and in this article will discuss a few aspects of these capacities.

“It’s a very interesting time, being in biometrics. In 2018, we’ll be testing five different biometrics,” Will Graves, deputy project manager and Chief engineer for biometrics at DoD said.

While facial recognition software is already becoming fairly commonplace, it’s primarily used at short ranges, like within airports and other buildings.

“When I worked at [the Homeland Security Department], at-a-distance was out to 10 meters. At DoD, it’s out to almost a kilometer now,” Graves said. “When we say ‘face-at-a-distance’ we’re using a telephoto lens ( a telephoto lens is a specific type of a long-focus lens in which the physical length of the lens is shorter than the focal length), but it’s not that easy to throw a telephoto lens on a video capture.”

At that kind of distance, you have to compensate for any number of potential distorting factors. Atmospherics can distort an image, so the camera has to have a high frame rate, and algorithms have to account for heat waves.

Graves said in a recent test at 500 meters, the heat from a helicopter takeoff was enough to prevent the system from recognizing the presence of a human face, much less identifying it. The human eye, however, was still able to pick out the face.

Another type of bio-recognition is contactless biometrics. Contactless biometrics can run the gamut from on-the-move facial and iris recognition to no-touch fingerprint identification.

Contactless fingerprint identifications requires using high-resolution cameras — about 500 pixels-per-inch — to get an image of a person’s fingerprints. One of the reasons for this is that people often balk at touching fingerprint scanners in crowded public settings, like airports. Graves said DoD has already had some success in matching contactless fingerprints to on-the-move facial captures.

But on-the-move facial recognition presents its own challenges, because cameras rarely catch a straight-on image of a person’s face in natural settings.

“Historically, facial recognition started out from taking mugshots,” Graves said. “So most facial recognition algorithms are very good with a full-frontal face. With the movement to video and some of the social media things, we have to start looking at algorithms that can take off-angle faces and do recognition that way.”

Graves said DoD wants to tap into the vast amounts of information available on the dark web and via social media, and video is the future of social media. So it wants to be able to scrape identifying information from ISIS propaganda videos or bomb-making tutorials.

Graves said this has raised some privacy concerns among prominent social media watchdogs, but that they shouldn’t be concerned.

“Because [members of ISIS are] not U.S. citizens, the DoD doesn’t extend the Privacy Act of 1974 like DHS does. DHS provides privacy protections to everybody. The DoD has a little different interpretation of that. So, if they’re not U.S. citizens, they don’t really have that privacy protection,” Graves said.

But U.S. citizens would be protected from DoD prying into their data.

Another aspect of biometrics is fast DNA analysis. Graves said the DoD is working with the University of Virginia to develop smaller, more efficient equipment for DNA analysis, so it can be processed in the field rather than being sent to a lab. Right now, he said they’ve gotten it down to about 5 kilograms, although it’s not quite ready to fit into a backpack.

The new system also uses CD technology, taking advantage of centripetal force to reduce the amount of chemicals required for testing, and thus the amount of chemicals needing to be transported.

The last component to be discussed will be voice recognition. Graves said DoD is trying to improve its algorithms that match voice samples against a watchlist to improve its ability to pick single voices out of the crowd. Also, DoD wants the capability to do so in handheld capture devices.

Graves said this fits into a larger need to adapt to a more mobile environment.

Graves said DoD has a roadmap to look 30 years into the future with biometrics and how it wants to explore potential uses, And sometimes, that roadmap changes. Graves said that often happens when commercial technologies accomplish a goal faster than military research. One example is when ATM machines in Japan began using vein pattern analysis, which traces unique patterns in the veins of a person’s hand, as a security feature.

But they’re also aware that servicemembers who would be using these biometrics in the field already have large amounts of equipment they’re responsible for carrying. Graves doesn’t want to add to that growing burden, but take advantage of capabilities that already exist by acknowledging that there are likely already existing sensors in the field.

“In the past, the paradigm was you had a sensor, and you had an algorithm. We’re trying to break that,” Graves said.