To Succeed, Soldiers ‘Need to See the Environment’
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Troops fighting in Iraq’s cities often complain that they cannot see the enemy, who is most often hiding among the population. They need sensors that can penetrate walls, identify foes in pitch dark and locate buried explosives.
Military researchers and private contractors have seen an explosion in the demand for new sensor technologies. In response, they are developing next-generation devices and also finding novel ways to employ current systems.
“The sensor technology is being deployed on virtually every platform imaginable,” said David Strong, vice president of marketing at FLIR Systems Inc. Sensors are no longer restricted to multi-million dollar Apache helicopters. They can be attached to humvees or carried by dismounted troops.
“Part of it has to do with this asymmetric warfare that we’re into,” he added. “Everybody is vulnerable. Everybody needs protection. Everybody needs to see their environment.”
That’s not to say that the military doesn't still need to locate tanks on the battlefield, experts said.
However, “the nature of the warfare is driving the technology in directions that are very closely linked together,” Strong said.
Gary Martin, acting deputy to the commander at the Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, said sense-through-wall technologies can assist soldiers in urban operations.
Industry has been busy inventing handheld devices that are “proving the ability to detect moving [targets] behind walls or behind obstacles,” he said at the Association of the United States Army winter conference.
Some ground forces are also now receiving the next generation of night vision technology — the enhanced night vision goggle — which blends the ambient light found in traditional image enhancement with infrared signatures, which pick up heat.
Don Morello, director of U.S. military marketing at the goggle’s manufacturer, ITT Night Vision, said current urban operations are pushing these advances.
Users now see two colors instead of one. Orange from the thermal, heat-sensing infrared, and the traditional green from image enhancement. This is particularly useful in cities. An electrical cable, for example, appears to be a black line in first- and second-generation night vision optics. Overlaying infrared highlights the electrically charged line in orange, which gives the soldier more information.
Infrared sensors cannot see through glass. Image enhancement can’t penetrate fog and smoke. When one fails, the other can take over. Having the thermal option is particularly useful in cityscapes, where war fighters may have to enter pitch-black structures.
“I’ve got to be able to do the mission whether inside the building or not,” Morello said.
Improvements are in the works for both night vision and sense-through-wall technologies, which are at different stages of their evolutions.
Morello said the next step will be to produce digital images that can be shared in a network. The Army wants soldiers to send images back to command headquarters. To do that, the fused images will have to be digital. ITT and other venders are working out the size, weight and power problems that are always associated with equipment foot soldiers must carry.
Short-wave infrared may follow and revolutionize night vision. SWIR uses night sky radiance to enhance images that are “astounding,” Morello said. This technology is still in the labs, though. Engineers have a long way to go to make these power-hungry sensors small enough to be carried into combat.
“We have got to find a way to get there collectively [as an industry]… because that’s going to be very important in the urban environment,” Morello said.
As for sense-through-wall devices, they are still relatively rudimentary. Some simply indicate with a red light if there is movement or people behind a structure. And they may have to be placed directly on the wall.
Martin said the next challenge will be for the handheld devices to indicate the presence of people from greater distances away from the wall as well as providing easier, three-dimensional view screens so operators can see where a person is standing.
“Right now we can’t tell if it’s a dog or a human, for example. We can’t necessarily tell how far [the target is] behind the wall.”
Besides these handheld devices, advances in miniaturization are allowing sensors to be placed on almost any platform, down to small unmanned aerial vehicles.
“Everyone of them has a sensor because that’s the whole point,” Strong said.
One of the deadliest and toughest problems the U.S. military has encountered in Iraq and Afghanistan is improvised explosive devices — particularly those buried along roads.
UAVs, and their camera payloads, have been used to catch insurgents planting bombs. Hyperspectral sensors, which pick up shades of color, can see where the earth has been disturbed and possibly point to where a bomb was recently buried. The IED problem is pushing the development of this technology.
Once an optical sensor fixes on an object, the operator should have the ability, if necessary, to target it, Strong said. There are increasing demands that a laser designator be part of every sensor package. These allow precision guided munitions, launched from helicopters, fighter jets, or perhaps UAVs, to take out a target.
“Putting a laser designation capability into a wide range of products is in the forefront of our development,” Strong said.
FLIR recently introduced its mission equipment package, a target acquisition pod with a laser designator that the company says can be mounted on almost any platform, including small UAVs.
Precise targeting, which laser designators afford, helps reduce fratricide and civilian casualties, which are two hazards when fighting in urban environments.
In anticipation of the Army’s development of the next generation of Bradley Fighting Vehicles, BAE Systems has outfitted two of the armored trucks with an array of sensors to both increase situational awareness, and allow for better target acquisition, said Mike Lewis, vice president of business development at BAE Systems.
“In an urban environment, the bad people can be right there next to you,” he said.
Operators can fight from inside the vehicles using electro-optical sensors. The prototypes have 360-degree situational awareness, including camera lenses embedded inside rear tail lights so dismounting soldiers can see what’s behind them before opening the hatch.
Dawn Mangano, a project engineer overseeing the prototype, said it features a five-meter retractable mast with a medium-range electro-optical infrared sensor that can see 1,500 meters out, and paint a target with a laser designator.
In recent live-fire exercises, BAE demonstrated this ability when an Apache helicopter swooped in and destroyed a designated target, she said.
Most of these new technologies help soldiers see. But there are four other senses. “Sniffers” are used to detect toxic industrial chemicals, nerve agents and explosive residue. Listening is yet another category.
Ground forces have mounted on trucks Boomerang shooter detection systems, built by BBN Technologies, to pinpoint the direction of sniper fire. Other companies have produced similar sensors to detect the origin of mortars and other munitions.
Retired Army Gen. Paul Kern, speaking at the National Defense Industrial Association robotics conference in San Antonio, Texas, said today’s soldiers are too visually inclined. They grow up in front of computer screens. Vietnam-era soldiers had to keep their ears open when on patrol. They could tell the difference between the crack of an enemy’s AK-47 rifle and an M-16.
Sensors placed on robots used in today’s fights need to be an extension of a human. They should not only see, but smell and hear for their operators, he said.
Signals intelligence is another kind of listening, and key to uncovering terrorist networks, experts have said. But eavesdropping on enemy conversations is growing increasingly difficult. It’s another major change from the Cold War-era when the enemy was using push-to-talk radios. Today, they are using commercial communications equipment, said John Beck, manager of transformation programs at Lockheed Martin’s information systems and global services division.
“Commercial technology is being leveraged heavily and that makes it much more difficult” to eavesdrop, he said.
Anthony Lisuzzo, director of the intelligence and information warfare directorate at the Army communications-electronics, research, development and engineering center, said one type of sensor “will not do it all” in urban environments. CERDEC and Lockheed Martin in February signed a cooperative research agreement to tackle some of these intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance problems.
Sensors are gathering terabytes of data. One of the challenges is how to quickly process this information, and allow analysts to put together a picture of what is happening. They then need to push what the sensors have uncovered down to the commanders who need it.
That involves data mining, piecing together patterns and relationships, and keeping up with the ever changing communications technologies that foes may be using.
“That’s extremely difficult against a nontraditional threat,” Lisuzzo said.
The Lockheed Martin-CERDEC team will develop new sensors, but Elton Schroeder, vice president of Lockheed Martin’s C4ISR division, said it will look to leverage the capabilities of some of the older systems as well. Don’t scrap the Cold War-era sensors just yet, he warned. Algorithms can be changed to suit the new mission, he said.
For example, the 1970s era firefinder radar — intended to locate enemy mortars — mutes a lot of data to reduce false alarm rates. Users didn’t want to mistake a flock of birds for incoming fire, for example. That system has buried data that can be “exposed” to look for small, unmanned aerial vehicles, he said.
“It’s about using traditional sensors in nontraditional ways,” he added.
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