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Soldier Tech 

Researchers Tackle Troops’ Physical, Cognitive Challenges 

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By Yasmin Tadjdeh 



In order for troops to fight to the best of their ability, experts say the military must lighten their backpacks, reduce “information overload” and improve their physical fitness.

“Load and bulk impacts our soldier’s mobility, their survivability and effectiveness in their ability to make contact with the enemy and maintain contact with the enemy,” said Pat Berger, deputy capability manager for the soldier at U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC).

Troops during World War I carried about 65 pounds of gear made of materials such as wood, leather and canvas, Berger said. But today — even with contemporary materials — modern foot soldiers’ loads are twice as heavy at 130 pounds.

“The Army has struggled with soldier load issues since well before World War I,” he said at the Soldier and Marine Modernization conference in Arlington, Va.

TRADOC is currently looking at a number of solutions to help get the pounds off soldiers’ backs, such as reducing material weight and improving individual and squad load distribution. More frequent and reliable resupply processes are also needed, said Berger.

“The Army must maintain [a] minimum load that makes the soldier mission effective, and we must enable the soldiers to be as lethal and survivable as possible while remaining agile and active,” he said.

Future adversaries may become more sophisticated, further necessitating the need to have troops be as burden-free as possible, he said.

“Our soldiers have operated and will continue to operate in a complex environment both now and in the future,” said Berger. “We know the threat is very adaptive and the future is becoming more technological and complex.”

Patrick McGrath, a science-and-engineering technical advisor at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), said one solution for reducing weight is more energy-efficient batteries. A solid oxide fuel cell may be one way to reduce the battery burden.
The fuel cell, which has been tested by DARPA for various missions — including increasing flight time for small unmanned aerial vehicles — would be an ideal way to charge portable electronics, he said.

“We are looking not just at the promise of fuel cells that people have been talking about for decades, but getting fuel cells into real missions and accomplishing things in the field,” said McGrath at the meeting.

The solid oxide fuel cell is a cross between an engine and a battery. The electro-chemical device does not burn energy, but rather uses a chemical reaction with hydrocarbons to “suck” electrons out of the fuel, he said.

“It’s more efficient than an engine. You’re able to make it smaller than an engine. It’s very quiet and you are able to get much greater energy density than you would out of a battery,” said McGrath. “Hydrocarbons are magical for storing and moving energy. They are safe. They are convenient.”

While fuel cells can recharge batteries more efficiently, it is unreasonable to think that troops would be able to carry around dozens of wires to connect the power source to their electronic devices, McGrath said. Wireless charging is necessary, he said.

DARPA has been testing devices that charge gear using magnetic fields. While the device is only able to charge electronics within a few centimeters of the source, studies have shown that it transfers up to 90 percent of power compared to typical charging methods such as sockets, McGrath said.

“It gives you the ability … to take the high-energy density source … and use that power to create a hotspot around that soldier or Marine,” said McGrath. “You can power that scope, power the night vision goggle [and] power the radio.”

Martin Drake, a science advisor with U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla., agreed that the Defense Department must do a better job of solving the energy and soldier-load issue.
“We are tremendous users of power … and the burden that we put on our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines when we send them down range is significant,” Drake said at the conference. “CENTCOM is a big supporter of trying to get our arms around what we as a department need to do with regard to solving the energy power problem.”

Soldier power has been a long-standing issue, said Berger, but with new requirements, new capabilities and new potential adversaries, the military must do a better job at tackling the problem.

“Soldier power represents a critical capability gap and one of the critical war fighter outcomes. New materials often evolve … [and] new power requirements are making an already difficult soldier-load situation even worse. Advancements must continue, in both rechargeable and non-rechargeable power sources,” said Berger.

While the solid oxide fuel cell would help reduce the weight of batteries, load is more than just pounds and ounces.

George Solhan, deputy chief of naval research for expeditionary maneuver warfare at the Office of Naval Research (ONR) said, “Lightening the load is not just reducing the weight — it’s lightening all of the stressful loads, and it’s making the grunt … able to outperform, outthink and outmaneuver [the enemy] … [It’s] a holistic approach to lightening the physical load, the payload, the information load, the communications load, the mobility load, the resilience load, all of the various loads that burden our infantry and special operators.”

If weight can indeed be reduced, there are benefits to be reaped. Lighter gear prevents stress injuries and lessens calorie and water intake. It also helps with the weight carried by trucks, which makes for more efficient fuel consumption, Solhan said.

“There’s a lot of … effects, all of which are beneficial because weight is the enemy, but load — considered more holistically of data, information, maneuver, sustainment, etc. — is really the enemy, and we’re going to reduce that across the board,” Solhan said.

The Army has been looking at a number of initiatives to reduce the amount of weight soldiers carry, such as transporting gear on autonomous vehicles. DARPA’s $54 million legged squad support system is a robotic pack mule. Other unmanned systems, such as the Marine Corps’s K-Max helicopter have been deemed a success for their heavy-lifting capabilities. Additionally, the Army is looking at optimizing soldier protective equipment while balancing mobility, lethality and safety.

Better survivability through training and physical stress reduction is also needed, Solhan said.

With some exceptions, troops haven’t been as physically taxed over the past decade, Solhan said. For example, he pointed to the growth of defense contractors and the establishment of numerous forward operating bases, which allow troops the opportunity to get a hot meal or a shower — a small luxury that those serving in previous wars were not afforded.

The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan did not stress soldiers as much as a future war with a near-peer competitor could, Solhan said. Troops must toughen up in order to succeed, he said.

“You’ve got to be physically in better condition. You’ve got to be able to better handle fatigue, stress, sleeplessness, nutritional impediments. And overall, you’ve got to be more resilient. You’ve got to be able to transcend the hard living environment and overcome all that,” said Solhan.

Agencies such as ONR have begun to work on measures that can benefit soldiers and Marines physiologically. Better training methods to increase endurance and strength — while at the same time minimizing injuries — are in development, Solhan said. Modeling and simulation techniques are also being designed to better evaluate missions, terrain and environments, he said.

Additionally, ONR is testing various diet supplements to maintain lean muscle mass in troops and optimize health, Solhan said.

Relieving stress and fatigue has been a tough nut to crack.

But if troops can raise their threshold of fatigue, then the stresses of combat will get pushed further out. Stress-inducing stimuli are temporary, and slowing down, resting or dumping excessive gear can mitigate many of them, he said. Once a soldier is in control of the situation, his or her resiliency is boosted.

To evaluate the physical and mental pressures that troops sustain, ONR has been subjecting groups of Marines to various difficult conditions and recording their performances. Results have found that resiliency is measurably improved when certain stress-reducing methods are used. Solhan said the office is working to introduce the measures into the field soon.

Researchers are also concerned about information overload.

Being able to deal with mounds of data means someone can “outthink” the enemy — a necessity to win any future war with a near-peer competitor, Solhan said.

“Outthinking means being able to handle a lot of data and information, to be able to fuse it, to be able to … make good decisions and make them in real time on the go, in an overload environment and at all levels,” he said.

Smaller units must adapt in order to be proactive rather than reactive, Solhan said.
Better data processing solutions are already being worked on at ONR, he said.

“We are doing research in human cognition, behavioral science in decision making, as well as augmenting human perception, memory [and] pattern recognition,” said Solhan in an email.

ONR is also developing computer-aided virtual and augmented-reality training systems that focus on the way troops learn. Additionally, the office is working on tool kits that allow troops to quickly visualize situations and analyze them when dealing with large amounts of data.

Photo Credit: Thinkstock, Defense Dept.
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