The explosion of the first Soviet atomic bomb in August 1949, followed by the Soviet development of bombers that could traverse the Arctic Circle, created a significant new security threat to the United States. In response to this threat, the Department of Defense commissioned the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to take a leadership role in addressing this problem. The result was the establishment of MIT Lincoln Laboratory in 1951 to design and develop the first air defense system for the United States. This system, designated the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE), was pioneering in its complexity and required numerous inventions — including digital computers, magnetic-core memory, large-scale computer programs, modems, and interactive graphical user interfaces — in order to come into being.

The Runway Status Lights (RWSL) system includes four types of status lights: Runway Entrance Lights Takeoff-Hold Lights (shown here at Los Angeles International Airport), Runway Intersection Lights, and Final Approach Runway Occupancy Signal.

SAGE became fully operational in 1963, with 24 direction centers and three combat centers spread across the United States, and was in operation until 1983. Well before SAGE’s decommissioning in 1983, the threat of Soviet bombers had been replaced by a new threat — intercontinental ballistic missiles — that required a new national focus, and a new set of technical breakthroughs and developments. As the first project undertaken by Lincoln Laboratory, SAGE established a systems approach to the development of complex, large-scale systems that is still very much part of the Laboratory culture today.

Following the development of SAGE, Lincoln Laboratory moved on to address other missions and technologies critical to national security, including the Whirlwind computer that provided real-time computational capability for SAGE. The greatest breakthrough in the development of Whirlwind was the invention of magnetic-core memory, a three-dimensional structure of cores that stored data. Magnetic-core memory enabled the widespread adoption of computers for industrial applications.

The Laboratory’s work on a reliable radar system to warn of attacks by intercontinental ballistic missiles resulted in the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS), which consisted of detection radars. BMEWS continues in operation today, with the original surveillance and tracking radars replaced by phased-array radar systems.

The Sketchpad system was the first computer-aided design (CAD) interface. It made it possible for a man and a computer to interact rapidly through the medium of line drawings. The Sketchpad system, by eliminating typed statements in favor of line drawings, opened up a new area of man-machine communication.

One of the few technologies specifically addressing runway incursions, the Runway Status Lights (RWSL) system provides the timeliest, most effective, and most highly automated technology to directly alert pilots and vehicle operators on the airport surface of potential incursions. The system turns on special red lights, embedded in the runway pavement, that are fully visible to pilots and nearby personnel. It serves as an independent backup to the clearances issued by air traffic controllers.

Technology Mission

The Carbon dioxide/Oxygen Breath and Respiration Analyzer (COBRA) sensor is more portable and cost-effective than existing indirect calorimetry sensors. It includes a chest harness and bite grip that enable hands-free use of the system during exercise and training.

Since 1971, Lincoln Laboratory has supported the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the development of new technology for air traffic control. This work initially focused on aircraft surveillance and weather sensing, collision avoidance, and air-ground data link communication. The program has evolved to include safety applications, decision support services, and air traffic management automation tools. The current program is supporting the FAA’s Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen).

To expand intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, Lincoln Laboratory conducts research and development in advanced sensing, signal and image processing, automatic target classification, decision support, and highperformance computing. By leveraging these disciplines, the Laboratory produces ISR system concepts for surface and airborne applications. Sensor technology for ISR includes passive and active electro-optical systems, surface surveillance radar, and radio frequency geolocation. Increasingly, the work extends from sensors and sensor platforms to include the processing, exploitation, and dissemination technologies that transform sensor data into the information and situational awareness needed by operational users.

This high-resolution, 3D image of the Boston skyline was collected with Lincoln Laboratory airborne ladar that uses large-format, single-photon-sensitive detector arrays. This image, representing a small fraction of the full 9 km2 collection, demonstrates approximate 3D resolution of 25 cm, which is about the diameter of a volleyball.

The Laboratory develops and assesses integrated systems for defense against ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and air and maritime platforms in tactical, regional, and homeland defense applications. Activities include development of advanced sensor and decision-support technologies, development of pathfinder prototype systems, extensive field measurements and data analysis, and the verification and assessment of deployed system capabilities. The Homeland Protection mission supports the nation’s security by innovating technology and architectures to help prevent terrorist attacks within the US, reduce the vulnerability of the nation to terrorism, minimize damage from terrorist attacks, and facilitate recovery from either manmade or natural disasters.

Lincoln Laboratory is working to enhance and protect the capabilities of the nation’s global defense networks. Emphasis is placed on developing component technologies, building and demonstrating end-to-end system prototypes, and then transferring this technology to industry for deployment in operational systems.

The Cyber Systems and Operations Group works closely with the nation’s cyber forces, intelligence community, and federal agencies to identify operational gaps, and analyze their current and planned systems and missions. Technological systems are developed that enhance battle management, and command and control of cyberspace, including network, host, embedded system, and electromagnetic-based cyber sensors and actuators, and human-computer interfaces and visualization.

Technology Transfer

EnteroPhone is a tiny, wireless, ingestible device that monitors heart and breathing rates by listening to the body’s sounds, and that senses core temperature, all from within the gastrointestinal tract.

Lincoln Laboratory has a long history of promoting technology transfer for application in the defense and civil sectors. Many technologies developed initially to meet defense requirements have been adapted for commercial use. More than 85 high-technology companies have evolved from the Laboratory’s technology development. These companies’ services and products range from multimedia software services to advanced semiconductor lithography. The following technologies developed at the Laboratory have wide-reaching applications.

In collaboration with the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine (USARIEM) and the Marine Expeditionary Rifle Squad (MERS), Lincoln Laboratory has undertaken a research effort to create a low-cost personal metabolic sensor and metabolic fuel model. The Carbon dioxide/Oxygen Breath and Respiration Analyzer (COBRA) enables individuals to make on-demand metabolic measurements simply by breathing into it. The COBRA can be applied to training athletes for high-endurance activities, guiding weight loss by quantifying the impact of dietary and exercise regimens, or identifying nutritional imbalances.

The Airborne Collision Avoidance System for Unmanned Aircraft (ACAS Xu) is an automated collision avoidance tool for unmanned aerial systems. The system relies on significant advances in dynamic programming, automated tuning, and parallel computing to enable unmanned aircraft to detect and track nearby aircraft. Using this information, ACAS Xu provides safety alerts that help maintain separation and prevent midair collisions between unmanned air vehicles, and between manned and unmanned aircraft.

The Localizing Ground-Penetrating Radar (LGPR) uses inherently stable subsurface features and their geolocation to locate a vehicle, even in adverse weather conditions. The prior map can be seen in gray on the left, the current scan is shown in light blue under the vehicle, and the registered data is shown in blue and green behind the vehicle.

The Small Airport Surveillance Sensor (SASS) is an inexpensive surveillance system that provides airport tower controllers with situational awareness of aircraft on the airport surface and in nearby airspace under all visibility conditions, including nighttime and bad weather. The SASS system consists of a master unit and two sensor units; the sensor units are located near the ends of the longest runway, and the master unit is located in the airport control tower. The sensor units listen for spontaneous replies from nearby aircraft equipped with Mode S beacon transponders.

EnteroPhone™ is a tiny, wireless, ingestible device developed by Lincoln Laboratory and MIT researchers. It monitors heart and breathing rates by listening to the body’s sounds, and it senses core temperature, all from within the gastrointestinal tract. Its ability to reliably monitor those key vital signs gives physicians, physical therapists, and athletic trainers a tool that obviates the need for the attachment of obtrusive sensors, or the surgical implantation of internal sensors.

Under development by staff at Lincoln Laboratory, in collaboration with a neurosurgeon from the Massachusetts General Hospital, Laserscope will enable a surgeon to perform very precise endoscopic surgery within the spinal canal via a naturally existing access port near the base of the sacrum. This tool is being developed to treat lumbar spinal stenosis, a leading cause of back and leg pain. With Laserscope, a surgeon will be able to decompress the spinal canal in a minimally invasive outpatient procedure, providing an alternative to open back surgery.

The Localizing Ground-Penetrating Radar (LGPR) uses very high frequency (VHF) radar reflections of underground features to generate a baseline map of a road’s subsurface. This map is generated during an LGPR-equipped vehicle’s drive along a roadway, and becomes the reference for future travels over that stretch of road. The LGPR mounted beneath the vehicle measures the current reflections of the road’s subsurface features, and its algorithm estimates the vehicle’s location by comparing those current GPR readings to the baseline map stored in the system’s memory. The vehicle reliably knows its position even when lane markings are hidden by snow, signs and landmarks have moved, and GPS signals are unavailable.


For more information, contact David Granchelli, Communications Manager, MIT Lincoln Lab, at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; 781-981-4204.

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