The renowned US military ultratech agency, DARPA*, is about to begin work on a mysterious new piece of surveillance and tracking kit known only as "Project Gandalf".
According to the initial announcement (pdf) regarding an industry briefing for contractors who might be interested, the details of the Gandalf programme are classified "SECRET/NOFORN" (meaning no non-Americans are allowed to know about it, and even US citizens will need a security clearance). However, DARPA is willing to say this much:
The Gandalf program is an advanced technology and development and demonstration program that is seeking solutions to ... radio frequency (RF) geolocation and emitter identification using specific emitter identification (SEI) for specific signals of interest. The ultimate goal of the Gandalf program is to enable a set of handheld devices to be utilized to perform RF geolocation and SEI on RF signals of interest to the Gandalf program. The specific goals and performance objectives associated with RF geolocation and SEI for the Gandalf system are classified.
So it would appear that a group of undercover operatives or special-forces troops dispersed near a target (perhaps a specific cell or satellite phone) might carry portable gadgets, presumably networked. The netted devices would be able to pick out the phone, radio or whatever they were after and track it.
This sort of thing is already done by surveillance aircraft and/or drones; the new wrinkle is being able to do it using handheld devices. So Project Gandalf kit is presumably intended for situations where the spy planes and drones can't be used - perhaps where the local government is unaware of the operation, or will permit the US to have people on the ground but not aircraft in the sky.
As far as the technology goes, the idea sounds feasible. Commercial pico/microcell gear, for instance - with all the capabilities needed to ID and locate cell phones - is already easily down to briefcase size. Satellite phones would be harder, of course.
Normally DARPA's ideas are much more ambitious - not so much bleeding-edge technology as kit sharp enough to chop your feet off without you noticing until you went for a walk. So in fact - if Project Gandalf is truly "DARPA hard" to achieve - it could well be targeted at emitters more elusive and harder to ID than ordinary cell phones.
There might be a few more details when the anticipated Broad Agency Announcement comes out. We'll keep you posted if so. ®
*Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency