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Tech Thursday – Air Force Supercomputer is No Game

Right in our own backyard is one of the world’s most powerful, and fastest super computers. It belongs to the Air Force’s Research Lab in Rome, NY. It’s also the cheapest, having been built from 1700 PlayStation 3 game consoles.

Photo by John Berry/The Post-Standard

The Air Force calls it The Condor and says it’s one of the 40 fastest computers in the world. They use it to process images from spy planes and drones, giving details that can help determine if something on the ground, is friend or foe.

The Condor basically gives the Air Force the ability to do 24-hour, realtime surveillance over an area about 15 miles wide. Condor’s power is mostly used to process data from a new radar technology called “Gotcha”, which provides sharper resolution then older forms of radar. And because of the PS3’s graphics capability, this type of work is right up it’s alley.

Video that has been taken from processed radar signals can be played back or viewed in realtime. This can help determine the cause of an event like an explosion or uprising. Condor allows you to change the perspective of what you are looking at, going from air to ground to see around buildings, just like in a video game.

Development started back in 2005 just after the PlayStation 3 was released. Senior scientist Richard Linderman brought a PS3 home and starting experimenting because of the ability of the console to run the Linux operating system, like IBM’s Watson computer, who took on two Jeopardy game show champions and won. Sony has since removed this feature and is suing a hacker for creating and releasing to the public, a work around to install Linux on the console again.

Linderman then took the PS3 to work and asked his research team to try linking 8 of the consoles together to see how well it would work. After being impressed by what they saw, they added a few more. About 330 more and saw that it worked even better. Then they started wondering what 1000 could do.

After getting about $2.5 million in funding from the Department of Defense, they bought as many PS3s as they could get a hold of. But by that time, the console had become so popular, that they were hard to find, but the team was able to get 1700 consoles.

The Air Force has also put Condor to use processing ground-based radar images of space objects giving fantastic clarity. They have also had Condor do some computational intelligence. An example is having Condor scan text, in any language at 20 pages per second, and then having it fill in missing sections, that it hasn’t seen with near 100% accuracy. Then going on to tell a user, what information is important. This can be done in a matter of hours, instead of days.

The Rome Lab is also sharing access to Condor with researchers at other government agencies, as well as some universities and colleges in the area, like Cornell University, Syracuse University and State University Institute of Technology at Utica/Rome.

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