An Engineer Does the Math So Troops in Iraq Can Find Bombs

By Stephen Barr
Monday, November 19, 2007

J oshua R. Fairley is stationed in Vicksburg, Miss. -- and helping fight the war in Iraq.

Fairley, an electrical engineer at the Army's Engineer Research and Development Center, developed a method for improving the detection of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, improving the accuracy of sensor systems by 75 percent.

He's one of the young stars in the Defense Department's effort to harness computers and airborne sensors to find bombs and mines on and off the roads of Iraq.

"What we are trying to do in our work is to inform our commanders on what are the most optimal sensors to use, given the environment, weather conditions and time of day, that would lend itself to the best opportunity to detect that kind of threat," he said.

Fairley, 34, was honored this month with the Pentagon's David O. Cooke Excellence in Public Administration Award, given annually to an up-and-coming civil service employee who is dedicated to improving programs in the Defense Department.

The award is named after the legendary "mayor of the Pentagon," as Cooke was known, who died in 2002 after being injured in an automobile accident. Until he was selected, Fairley did not know that he had been nominated for the award, which was presented Nov. 7 by Gordon England, the deputy secretary of defense.

The research conducted by Fairley and his colleagues at the Army center illustrates the increasing importance of technology to battlefield personnel. In Vicksburg, Fairley has access to the Defense Department's largest high-performance computing center, which has a Cray XT3 supercomputer, capable of performing 40 trillion calculations per second.

In his work, Fairley used computers to develop a virtual environment similar to what pilots see when they are in flight simulators. Fairley's virtual world recreated rural and urban scenes in three dimensions, featuring highly detailed images of walls, buildings, vehicles and other objects, and accurately rendered soil, asphalt and concrete.

He then took the characteristics of sensors, which are deployed on aircraft and in space, to scan terrain for explosive devices and put them into his virtual world, collecting data on how they worked under different weather conditions and even the time of day.

That allowed him to develop a formula that gauged the accuracy of those airborne sensors. The process essentially reduces the number of times that the sensors trigger a false alarm, helping troops on the ground be more effective in finding or avoiding IEDs.

With Fairley's breakthrough, the sensors are successful 75 percent of the time and Fairley said he believes technology will improve the detection rate to 90 percent. His formula also has given a boost to companies that make detection equipment, "helping them develop sensors that are more focused to identify these kinds of threats," Fairley said.

By using the virtual environment for trial-and-error tests of sensors, the government is significantly reducing costs to taxpayers, he said.

Fairley also was honored for developing software that has contributed to the safety of Defense personnel. As part of the effort to protect military installations from terrorist attack, Fairley created a method for testing a newly designed barrier system that can withstand high-impact crashes. The new design helps the barrier system blend into its surroundings, a goal of the project.

A graduate of Mississippi State University, Fairley previously worked for Lockheed Martin, developing sensors for airplanes and spacecraft at NASA's John C. Stennis Space Center on the Gulf Coast. He said he enjoyed participating in "world-class work" at the company, but was drawn to the Army center, with the Army Corps of Engineers, because of the opportunity to use the Defense Department's high-speed computers and because his wife is from the Vicksburg area.

"Here I have the best of both worlds: a great family atmosphere and the work is great," he said.

Stephen Barr's e-mail address

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company