WASHINGTON – Technology
that can see through walls to help police track criminals and aid
firefighters searching for victims received a boost from federal
Responding to industry requests, the Federal Communications
Commission tweaked restrictions on ultra-wideband technology, which
sends millions of narrow pulses each second over airwaves to get a
precise reading of an object's location and distance. The signals
also can carry huge amounts of data over a short distance.
The technology has many potential uses, from wireless home
networks of computers and other appliances to collision-avoidance
systems in cars. Ground penetrating radar systems using
ultra-wideband can detect objects or people buried under earth or
"While I hope we have no reason to ever use ultra-wideband to
assist search-and-rescue teams in a disaster, I'll be glad that we
have this tool available should the need arise," said FCC
Commissioner Michael Copps.
The FCC established rules a year ago permitting the marketing and
operation of ultra-wideband products. The latest rule changes will
allow manufacturers to design devices that gather clearer images,
said Edmond Thomas, chief of the FCC's Office of Engineering and
The agency is still studying the new technology to ensure it
doesn't interfere with other broadcasts.
Privacy advocates worry that the technology could be abused.
"It's yet another example of a technology that endows the police
with superhuman powers," said Barry Steinhardt of the American Civil
Liberties Union. "The technologies are being developed at light
speed but the law that governs their use is still back in the Stone
In June 2001, the Supreme Court ruled that police must get
warrants before using devices that search through walls for criminal
activity. The ruling involved police use of a heat-sensing device
that led to marijuana charges against an Oregon man.
The FCC announced its rule changes at a demonstration of
ultra-wideband devices at the agency's headquarters.
Several companies showed off ground-penetrating radar devices
that resemble heavy-duty lawnmowers with flat computer screens
mounted on their handles. The devices can locate utility pipes and
lines underground or in concrete.
Time Domain Corp., based in Huntsville, Ala., demonstrated a
"through-wall motion detector," a briefcase-sized, 10-pound device
that can be held up to a wall. A person moving behind the wall shows
up as a colorful blob on a small display. The detector is intended
for use by law enforcement, firefighters and the military.