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Inside Science and Technology 

Soldiers Track Each Other With Smart PDAs 

12  2,009 

By Grace V. Jean 

Many of the military’s ground vehicles are equipped with blue force tracking systems that help troops monitor the locations of friendly units and enemy forces. But when soldiers dismount to patrol an area on foot, they lose that digital awareness of their surroundings.

The Army’s troubled Land Warrior program — a wearable computer, GPS, radio and monocle display technology ensemble — was designed to give dismounted troops that battlefield information. The program is still alive and showing progress, according to Army officials.

A team at Lockheed Martin Corp.’s Advanced Technology Laboratories in Cherry Hill, N.J., meanwhile, has developed a Land Warrior-like handheld computer for small infantry units to track and communicate with each other on the ground.

The “distributed operations,” or “DisOps,” system consists of a group of PDAs and a software package that can be installed on a laptop.

Troops can upload GPS maps, photos and standard operating procedure cards to the handheld units, which weigh 1.5 pounds and function for 15 hours on batteries. The devices communicate via WiFi, tactical radio networks and cell phone networks, says Gerry Mayer, director of the artificial intelligence lab that developed the technology. They also interface with Mitre Corp.’s “Cursor on Target,” a machine-to-machine language used by remotely operated aircraft to share battlefield data. All communications are protected by the National Security Agency’s Suite B encryption.

On the laptop, squad leaders plan their missions. They can draw on the grid-based maps, just as TV sportscasters do during football games, to show troops key maneuvers in an operation. They can place military-standard icons on the maps and insert photos of wanted insurgents. Once the planning is complete, the unit syncs its PDAs. All of the leader’s annotations will appear on those displays.

As the unit moves out on foot, squad members will see the other PDA locations in real time. Each is denoted by a symbol and the user’s call sign. For example, there might be one labeled Eagle Eye and another, Red Wing. Built-in navigation tools help troops determine the range and azimuth between any two objects marked on the map. If they receive a target’s location by radio, they can input the code and the system automatically plots it on the display.

Troops also can jot notes on the maps or take a photo. Any updated information is sent to their comrades in seconds.

“One of the key things was to make the tool very flexible so they could use it however they wanted,” says Mayer.

The team integrated QinetiQ’s EARS sniper detection system into the devices. Mayer explains how the system can help troops in a hypothetical mission: Eagle Eye alerts his teammates to a possible sniper by placing an icon on the map. The sniper subsequently takes a shot. EARS would pinpoint the shooter’s exact location and a new icon would appear on the PDAs.

After completing the mission, the team re-syncs its PDAs with the laptop. All the information and events that transpired on the devices are laid out in chronological order, much like a video on YouTube. The squad leader could then conduct an after-action review and use the time-slider to fast forward to key moments in the mission.

Troops have said that this function could be a useful company-level intelligence tool because all the missions can be saved and later searched, Mayer says.  

The system deployed to Afghanistan with Army Special Forces for six months and warriors reported positive results, officials say. About 10 to 20 more PDAs will deploy to the war zone next month.

The program originally started in 2005 as a project funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Since then, the team has successfully ported the software to five different PDAs, including a cell phone-sized Nokia web device.  

The system last January supported U.S. Park Police during the presidential inauguration. Five PDAs deployed with officers and they transmitted as far away as a kilometer by using cell phone tower signals, says Mayer.

During a demonstration at U.S. Joint Forces Command’s Empire Challenge last summer, the technology connected to two key communications systems. The first was an emulation of the forthcoming Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) satellite to be launched in 2011. That proved the PDA’s beyond line-of-sight communications capabilities, Mayer says.

The devices also connected to F-16s flying above troops who were out in the California desert. A joint terminal attack controller was able to send his picture of the battlefield — complete with annotations and friendly locations — to the fighter. The F-16 pilot swung his sniper pod onto the target and captured an image, which he sent down. That information was superimposed over the JTAC’s display so that he could verify the target and clear the drop. After the bomb fell, the F-16 sent a battle damage assessment photo.

“Every soldier and marine who’s used this wants to take it on deployment,” says Mayer.
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