A year after rolling out its latest attempt to connect foot soldiers to networks, the Army already is being forced to make drastic changes to the program to keep pace with evolving technology.
The Army has been on a 20-year quest to provide ground troops with wearable computers that give them views of the battlefield that are usually reserved for those in planes, tanks and control centers.
Initially called Land Warrior and then Ground Soldier System, the effort a little more than a year ago seemed to be on a steady track. The Army had three contractors working on designs for the Nett Warrior program, which was renamed for a World War II Medal of Honor recipient.
But things change fast, especially the technology the Army was hoping to field under the program.
As originally conceived, the system would have featured a full-color, hands-free viewing monitor attached to an eyepiece that gave the soldier the illusion of looking at a 17-inch screen. Consisting of a computer, navigation system, control unit, radio, microphone and headphones, the ensemble would have allowed dismounted leaders to track themselves, other soldiers and the enemy on the hands-free device. A protective vest would have hidden the wiring for the system.
Now those in charge of Nett Warrior have ordered that all of these functions be transferred to a smaller, lighter smartphone.
That task has fallen to engineers at the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center in Massachusetts, who are scrambling to meet the demands of the new off-shoot program they unofficially call “Droid Warrior,” a name inspired by the Android operating system for mobile devices.
Natick’s work on the program began less than a year ago and engineers already have had to change phones because components became outdated. For now, engineers are working with the Motorola Atrix and Samsung Galaxy S2 phones. They also are trying to replicate Nett Warrior on tablet computers.
“It’s all changing so fast, we cannot keep up with what’s going on,” said Noel Soto, a systems engineer at Natick.
At first the Army requested that the navigation and communication functions be developed just for a few phones. Now, the Natick contingent is preparing 160 to be used during demonstrations this fall at the Army’s next “network integration evaluation” at Fort Bliss, Texas.
The purpose of Nett Warrior is to “provide unparalleled situational awareness and understanding to the dismounted leader allowing for faster, more accurate decisions in the tactical fight and connecting the dismounted soldier to the network,” according to Army promotional materials.
Contrary to rumors, the program has not been cancelled, Program Executive Office Soldier spokesperson Debi Dawson wrote in an email to National Defense. The Army has formed a steering committee that will look for opportunities to infuse commercial technologies and existing government devices into the program, she wrote.
Last year, the program’s leaders said they wanted to have 20,000 units by fiscal year 2016. Now all acquisition decisions are on hold until the committee completes its investigation.
As of Aug. 25, the Army had not responded to additional questions, including what this program shift means for General Dynamics, Raytheon and Rockwell Collins, the three contractors that already had built prototypes that were being tested at Fort Riley, Kan., late last year. General Dynamics and Rockwell Collins also did not respond to questions.
Raytheon says it fully supports the Army’s plans and continues to work on prototypes incorporating commercial smartphone technology. The company already has conducted demonstrations with these early prototypes, which will be delivered to the Army later this year for testing, according to a written response to questions.
“Simply connecting Nett Warrior with a commercial smartphone or tablet is essentially straightforward and has already been demonstrated,” Raytheon officials wrote. “But a soldier in a battlefield environment faces more challenges than a civilian consumer.”
Some of the challenges are: ensuring that mobile devices are interoperable with the Army’s classified radio network; withstanding harsh conditions in water, sand and dust; providing sufficient navigation capability with enough accuracy for a soldier to find his way to an objective under all conditions, including GPS-denied environments; and the prevention of enemy hacking or spoofing, the Raytheon statement said.
The work at Natick has focused on these problems, but issues remain with securing and ruggedizing the devices, engineers said.
Outer cases that soldiers used during field tests couldn’t keep phone screens from cracking when they were dropped. Researchers are looking at ways to mount them to troops’ arms or in pouches, they said.
Engineers also are working on developing a secure network for the phones. This is easier said than done and will require certification from the National Security Agency, Soto said.
“Right now the phone is [on] a 3G network,” he said. “If I have the right equipment, I can hack into it.”
Army leaders in April held a demonstration at Fort Belvoir, Va., to examine technologies that Product Manager Ground Soldier — an outfit within PEO Soldier — identified during six months of market research. The presentation focused on how commercial devices could reduce the size, weight, power and cost of a soldier-worn system, Maj. Douglas W. Copeland, assistant product manager for Ground Soldier, wrote in “Game Changer,” an article about the event.
Natick representatives were there to demonstrate the ability of the Android system to run the Nett Warrior software on mobile devices.
“We’re basically grabbing things off the shelf and putting them together to make it work,” Soto said. “We’re playing catch up with the commercial world.”
The Army ran a small-scale trial with six phones this summer at Fort Dix, N.J. Afterwards, soldiers championed Nett Warrior in its new lightweight and easy-to-use form.
“We all should have this,” Soto recalled troops telling him. “And it’s cheap enough that if it breaks, OK, on to the next one. It’s not a radio that’s $20,000.”