Wearable Computers Closer to Combat Use

By Dan Parsons
Much like the iPod beginning around 2002, Google Glass is slowly becoming a common modern fashion accessory.

The device immediately splashed across the Internet and television, then randomly showed up on subways and in coffee shops. Soon rumors circulated that the private sector had solved the wearable-computer conundrum the U.S. military has tackled for years.

Then, in February, the commander of all Navy ships in the Pacific Ocean took to a stage in San Diego with the wearable computer strapped to his head.

“I think there is enormous potential for something like this wearable optical device like I had on today, where information is with me, it’s there,” Adm. Harry Harris said. “Not only can I do something as simple as read a speech from it, but you can take pictures, video. … I recognize the potential in things like that.”

The Army in particular has long sought the sort of all-in-one wearable computer that Google has achieved with Glass, but after many stalled efforts it has failed to develop a feasible design. Still, some officials are wary of simply co-opting commercial technology for military purposes.

Reports indicate the Army is considering including Glass in its 2014 round of Network Integrations Evaluations at Fort Bliss, Texas, and Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md.

Special operations acquisition officials have warned against presuming technologies like Glass can solve the military’s tactical communications needs. Industry has taken the hint and begun to design heads-up display computers specifically for tactical applications.

Take BAE Systems’ Q-Warrior, which the company has been shopping around as a Google Glass for special operators in the field. Based on helmet-mounted displays worn by helicopter pilots and door gunners, the system was designed for use by the individual dismounted soldier. It allows for identification of hostile and friendly forces and small-unit coordination without obstructing the wearer’s view.

By projecting information, including troop positions, maps and alerts directly onto the environment, BAE hopes the device will minimize or even eliminate friendly fire incidents. Like Glass, it can overlay information on the soldier’s view in real time.

The system also can allow soldiers to coordinate air support, artillery fire and communication during hectic firefights without handling a separate device like a radio or smartphone.

“The biggest demand, in the short term at least, will be in roles where the early adoption of situational awareness technology offers a defined advantage,” Paul Wright, soldier systems business development lead at BAE’s electronic systems, said in a statement. “This is likely to be within non-traditional military units with reconnaissance roles, such as [joint tactical air controllers] JTACs or with Special Forces during counterterrorist tasks. The next level of adoption could be light role troops such as airborne forces or Marines.”

Raytheon joined the wearable computing market in 2013 with a JTACs system that allows ground forces to tag elements in the environment using a helmet-mounted monocle that covers the whole eye, but is see-through. The Advanced Warfighter Awareness for Real-time Engagement system consists of a chest-mounted computer, monocle and smartphone worn on the wrist or elsewhere. It allows a soldier to call in an air strike on a target simply by viewing it through the eyepiece and clicking the phone’s screen.

But the suite of gadgets is unfortunately similar to defunct Army programs like the Soldier Integrated Protective Ensemble and Land Warrior that were scrubbed when deemed too cumbersome and complicated. The latest effort, called Nett Warrior, is trudging along but struggling to deal with the swift leaps of commercially available smartphones and tablets.
Q-Warrior is being marketed as a device for unit commanders and above, but if the technology is proven effective in the field, it could become standard equipment, according to material from the company. It is descended from BAE’s Q-Sight family of heads-up displays for rotorcraft pilots and crews.

The Q-Sight weighs less than four ounces and can be clipped to any standard military helmet.  A version for door gunners, already used by the U.K. military, allows the wearer to aim down the barrel of a machine gun without having to line up with the weapon’s sights. That functionality also gives the gunner a wider arc of fire. The U.S. military is seeking similar capabilities in the third generation of enhanced night vision goggles.

General Dynamics took a different approach to tactical mobile computing with its ruggedized arm- or chest-mounted GD300 wearable device. Weighing in at less than 10 ounces, the smartphone-like gadget can operate as a commercial GPS unit or on a secure tactical network.

Some form of wearable computer like Glass or Q-Warrior likely will be included in the tactical assault light operator suit. Special Operations Command chief Adm. William McRaven has challenged industry to develop the advanced infantry uniform that will include integrated computers and ballistic protection to enhance a soldier’s strength, durability and situational awareness.

Special Operations Command is teaming with 56 corporations, 16 government agencies, 13 universities and 10 national laboratories to put together such a suit and its components.

Harris personally requested that Glass be made available for use as a teleprompter during his speech so he could demonstrate the practical applications of emerging commercial technology. The Navy will need big-ticket items like ships and missiles to fight future wars, but gadgets like Glass might also help the Defense Department maintain its technological edge over competitors, he said.

“We’ve got a big shopping list. We need platforms, we need weapons systems, cyber tools, handheld devices and, yes, even cool wearable optical devices like the one I’m wearing,” he said.

“If it makes us better war fighters, we’re interested. Interested, but skeptical. Because not only do we need technology that allows us to do our jobs better, we need technology that is resilient and reliable whether we’re ashore or at sea, and it’s got to be secure, and it’s got to be affordable. Wearable computers like the one I’m wearing today may only meet one or two of those requirements today, but it’s got to meet them all tomorrow.”

Topics: Defense Department, Science and Engineering Technology

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