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National Defense > Blog > Posts > Mobile App Funded by SOCOM Gives Commanders Front Row View of the Battlefield
Mobile App Funded by SOCOM Gives Commanders Front Row View of the Battlefield
By Sandra I. Erwin



The concept sounds relatively simple: A team of special operations troops sees an area of interest, and aims their smartphones. Then software magically produces instant GPS coordinates of where the operators are looking, giving commanders the option to strike the target or watch a live-stream of events from their command center.

It’s the type of technology that the U.S. Special Operations Command believes can help lift the fog of war.

The developmental app has yet to be tested in the field, but SOCOM sees promise. The command’s technology incubator, known as SOFWERX, has partnered with the software company CrowdOptic and a prototype version is expected to be ready by Sept. 30.

The app, dubbed “collective awareness engine,” combines real-time GPS data and live video streaming and calculates the precise location of where people’s smartphones or smart-glasses are looking.

It’s a new form of “triangulation,” says CrowdOptic CEO and co-founder Jon B. Fisher. “Triangulation has been around since Pythagoras. GPS has been around for decades,” he says in an interview. What is new is that now “we have the ability to understand in real time where multiple mobile devices are aimed in common.”

Anybody can track the location of your phone, he adds. “What we have is the location of where you’re looking. Imagine multiple phones aiming at a common point.” CrowdOptic algorithms compute the precise GPS location of a fixed or moving target.

Fisher and a small team of engineers invented the app five years ago for the commercial market, and never imagined if would be sought by the military. The version of the app customized for SOCOM was jointly developed with Tampa, Florida-based SOFWERX — an arm of SOCOM created specifically to hunt for cutting-edge technology. The app will be tested next month at the 1208 Rapid Prototyping Event. This is where companies bring commercial open-source technologies that can be rapidly adapted for SOCOM use.

Fisher, a 20-year veteran of the tech startup world, says he was impressed by how quickly SOFWERX moved to bring the company into the fold. “This is real-world fast track,” he says. “We had not heard of them until a month and a half ago. They reached out to us. It’s very exciting.” The software industry is known for moving quickly, he says, “but never have we seen the military provide such a turnkey path to engage them.”

So-called “collective awareness” technology is widespread in sports and other industries. CrowdOptic-equipped Google Glass devices carried by players, referees and fans are used for broadcasting events. Company investors include former National Football League stars John Elway, Ronnie Lott and Roger Craig. In a partnership with Solford Industries, CrowdOptic launched Incident Command Vision, a wireless helmet camera system for fire fighters and law enforcement to stream live video from incident locations.

For the military, this technology “represents a new type of situational awareness and investigative technique,” Fisher says. Specifically for SOCOM, the company designed a smaller version of its streaming device that can be mounted on a helmet or a vest. It has an onboard battery, GPS and compass sensors for push-button live streaming. It also can be activated remotely by commanders in the rear, “so they can see through the war fighters’ eyes,” Fisher says.

SOFWERX immediately understood how this could change the way forces engage enemies, Fisher says. “A commander can see where the soldiers are looking in common, even moving targets, and take action on that. As soldiers are aiming their devices, we can tell SOCOM where the devices are aimed in common. The guys in the field are painting the target and the commanders watch to better understand the target.”

For precise targeting from the air or the ground, the military typically employs laser devices, but the mobile app adds a whole new capability, he says. “Everyone has phones. This is situational awareness any time, anywhere. These guys are walking around, looking around. Now the command can look through them.”

Fisher says tech companies that have been approached by SOFWERX are amazed at how nimble the organization is. In order to test CrowdOptic patented software in government labs, for instance, the organization bought licenses and did not make an issue of intellectual property.  “We own lots of patents,” Fisher says. “These guys really respected that about us. That’s another reason this moved so quickly.”

SOCOM leaders have touted SOFWERX as one answer to the military’s frustrations about matching up commercial technology with battlefield systems.

The command’s procurement chief, James Geurts, was an early proponent of SOFWERX to help expedite the transition of advanced technology to the field. One of his favorite sound bites: “Velocity is my combat advantage.”

Fisher has witnessed how innovation around the world leapfrogs at breakneck speed whereas U.S. military technology programs move at a much slower pace. SOFWERX is a dramatic departure from the norm, he says. “Having done business in Silicon Valley for years, I think this is exactly the way the government should be doing this.”

Apps like the collective awareness engine have the potential to give SOCOM options to do more than just pinpoint target location. The software can be adapted for remote firing of unmanned weapons, for example. It can be scaled so large numbers of operators can be connected and help ID targets across the globe, Fisher says. “What happens if this is in the hands of thousands of guys all around the world?’

Photo: CrowdOptic


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