Wearable Technology Could Change How Special Operations Forces Fight
After years of battling in the desert and mountain climates of the greater Middle East, U.S. commandos are turning their attention to other environments such as the Arctic and the jungle.
“We haven’t been fighting in those areas,” said Adam Fields, SOCOM’s program manager for survival, support and equipment systems. “There are going to be different things that we need.”
New cold weather uniforms must enable operators to tolerate temperatures 50 degrees below zero, he said. “We want to reduce bulk as much as possible so the guys aren’t simply surviving in the Arctic, but they’re actually able to do their job.”
The command is looking for heated gloves with similar qualities, he noted.
In the jungle, uniforms need to counteract heavy rainfall and high humidity, Fields said. “We want to be able to get the moisture off of the operator [and] we also don’t want the uniforms to get soaked after five minutes.”
Additionally, they must be durable in heavy brush, which can tear materials when troops are on the move, he noted.
Commando uniforms consist of multiple layers and a single company doesn’t have to produce the entire outfit, Fields said during a briefing at the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference in Tampa, Florida, in May.
Oftentimes “the layers are all made by different manufacturers,” he said. “We tie them all together with multiple contracts. If you have got a piece [of technology] that may apply to one layer, that’s great.”
SOCOM could hold an industry competition for new protective combat uniforms as early as fiscal year 2017, he said.
The Department of Defense is pursuing other advanced materials for special operators and conventional troops. It is partnering with the Advanced Functional Fabrics of America Alliance — a consortium of universities, companies, nonprofits and research organizations across the country — and funding a new manufacturing innovation institute focused on revolutionary fibers and textiles. The institute will be headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
“This is a pioneering field, combining fibers and yarns with things like flexible integrated circuits, LEDs, solar cells, electronic sensors and other capabilities to create fabrics and cloths that can see, hear, sense, communicate, store energy, regulate temperature, monitor health, change color and much more,” Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said in April at MIT when the new initiative was announced. The Pentagon is making a $75 million initial investment in the project with more than $240 million in contributions coming from public and private partners.
“Revolutionary fibers and textiles have enormous potential for our defense mission,” Carter said.
Lightweight sensors woven into the nylon of parachutes could catch small tears that might otherwise expand in mid-air and put paratroopers’ lives at risk. Electronics embedded in uniform fibers could detect potential chemical and radiological agents, or help power network devices that soldiers carry into the field, Carter said.
Special operators training and assisting Iraqi forces would benefit from this technology during the hot summer months, he noted.
“A number of these fabrics are much more lightweight and shed heat better, and that’s not an insignificant matter when you’re a soldier and you’re carrying around a lot of weight,” he said.
In addition to being protected from the environment, commandos need body armor to shield them against enemy fire.
SOCOM will have a recompete for a ballistic plate contract in fiscal year 2019, Fields said. The command is also looking for new helmets that offer ballistic and impact protection. A solicitation is expected to go out to industry in the first quarter of fiscal year 2017, with a contract award anticipated in the third quarter.
Another item on SOCOM’s wish list is better eyewear.
“What I’m really looking for here is one of the ones that does it all — day, night, laser protection, perhaps something that does some active transitioning,” Fields said.
“It has to do it really fast,” he added. “We need to go from inside to outside, outside from inside, [and] the operators need to be able to not wait for their glasses to catch up with them.”
Officials are conducting market research to see what types of protection technologies are available, he said.
Perhaps the ultimate form of wearable armor is the tactical light operator suit, or TALOS. Nicknamed “the Iron Man suit” in reference to the fictional superhero, the aim of TALOS is to make special operators who kick in the door during raids essentially bulletproof. The powered exoskeleton is to be equipped with a communications suite and other enabling technologies.
SOCOM hopes to have a prototype ready by 2018, and officials have said the program is on track.
To push the technology forward, the command is promoting SOFWERX, its new rapid prototyping office. SOFWERX has already been put to use on the TALOS project to develop a base layer.
“Everybody thinks of the Iron Man suit exoskeleton,” said James “Hondo” Geurts, SOCOM’s acquisition executive, at the SOFIC conference. “What most people don’t think about is … what’s between that [metal suit] and human skin?”
Industry partners and different user groups recently teamed up to develop a solution.
“In 60 days we were able to turn full-up designs and prototypes so that we can start figuring out how are we going to solve this for the end suit,” Geurts said.
Wearable technology can help solve situational awareness problems.
Army Gen. Raymond Thomas III, the commander of SOCOM, was inspired by watching the movie “Minority Report” during a deployment to Afghanistan.
“I’m watching Tom Cruise do all his gizmo stuff, understanding everything in the world and I thought, ‘That’s what I want at the touch of a fingertip,’” he said. “I want to be able to bring everything we know … to the appropriate operator level.”
Even better would be a heads-up display system.
At some point “we’re going to interface artificial intelligence with our operators so they are literally hands free,” Thomas said. “At the voice prompt they’re going to be able to say, ‘Siri or Son of Siri or whoever, give me this [situational awareness information].’ And it’s going to drop down to a heads-up display and they’re going to have everything they need because it will all be in some file.”
Down the road, the SOCOM chief wants to integrate voice prompt technology into TALOS, noting that the first iteration of the suit will rely on button-enabled capabilities.
“I’m thinking, ‘OK, I can’t see buttons’” without looking down and taking eyes off the battlefield, he said. “I … want the next best version and so will our operators.”
Thomas’ dream might be on the path to coming true. The Defense Department’s rapid reaction technology office and the Army’s night vision and electronic sensors directorate have collaborated on an emerging capability prototyping project called HD Glass. SOCOM is slated to receive the new heads-up display equipment in September.
“The prevalence of smartphone applications for geolocation and information services has demonstrated how information can be a force multiplier for warfighters,” said an HD Glass project description published by the Defense Department.
But “increased battlefield awareness through smartphones, tablets and laptops comes at a cost of reduced awareness of immediate surroundings,” it said. “Heads-up displays provide an alternative human-technology interface that leverages the full capability of a smartphone, while maintaining ‘eyes out’ tactical awareness.”
Existing heads-up displays designed for aircraft pilots have insufficient field of view and contrast to meet the operational challenges of ground forces, according to the Pentagon’s acquisition office. HD Glass is intended to solve that problem.
The system consists of a high-definition, high-brightness, organic light-emitting diode see-through display mounted on a set of ballistic eyewear. The display will be integrated with a camera, sensors and electronics in a small, lightweight package that enables continuous all-day use, according to the project description.
It is designed to work with computing platforms such as Android operating systems, to provide an augmented reality overlay.
In this case, augmented reality refers to a live view of an environment with added situational awareness displays.
The phase one prototype, completed in April, demonstrated “an operational fit and function.” The phase two prototype, slated to transition to SOCOM and undergo an Army user assessment in September, includes “a versatile augmented reality interface.”
The system is intended to integrate with SOCOM’s Android tactical assault kit and the Army’s Nett Warrior system.
“It won’t be long, I guarantee you, before our combat infantrymen and women are using wearable electronics with uploadable combat apps and heads-up displays of their own,” Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work said at a conference last fall.
Beyond protecting and enabling special operators in combat, wearables could also help monitor their health and fitness. The Air Force Research Laboratory has tested out a range of devices designed to measure physical condition and performance.
“There are some devices that are really good and I think we have confidence in the data that we’re getting back and we find that data is actionable,” said Rajesh Naik, chief scientist for the 711th human performance wing at the lab. “I would say the majority of them don’t work well.”
Naik and his colleagues want devices that can accurately measure the physical condition of troops such as hydration levels and heart rate variability, a key indicator of fatigue. Identifying biomarkers in sweat could also be useful for force management purposes.
“There are certain markers that tell you when are you fatigued, when are you stressed,” he said. “But those sensors, because they are biological, it’s a little harder to build. That is why now we’re working with industry and academia saying, ‘What are the right platforms? What are the right sensors? What are the … recognition elements?’”
The lab has been working with special operators during their training exercises to learn more about the implications of wearables for measuring human performance.
Being able to collect, analyze and act upon information gleaned from wearable sensors — such as signs that a commando is about to suffer from heat exhaustion — could help prevent injuries or other health problems during training or in other settings.
“Can you intervene when you see his biometric signatures go off the charts?” Naik said. “Is there some signal that tells you that this guy is going to go into a state that is going to impact his physical performance?”
AFRL is working with a variety of partners through cooperative research-and-development agreements and other mechanisms to push the technology forward. Collaborators include traditional defense contractors, academia, research consortiums and non-traditional companies.
“There are some unusual folks who have gotten into this business of wearable sensors,” Naik said. “I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. It’s actually a good thing because they bring a completely different mindset.”