Raytheon Wins Foreign Language Contract

By Vivienne Machi

Photo: Raytheon

Raytheon BBN Technologies has been awarded a one-year $4 million contract to supply automatic speech recognition, machine translation and text-to-speech conversions to the Army, the company recently announced.

The product known as the machine foreign language translation system or MFLTS, will allow soldiers in the field to communicate with speakers of Iraqi Arabic as well as Pashto, which is spoken in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They can understand foreign language documents and digital media on Android handheld devices, Windows laptops and server-based systems, according to company officials. It can also be used on major intelligence systems at the battalion level.

The Army began the machine foreign language translation system program in 2011, and the technology has been in phased development and manufacturing for the past five years, said Martha Lillie, program manager at Raytheon BBN Technologies.

The software can convert English or Arabic speech into text, translate Iraqi Arabic or Pashto into English and vice versa, or take written text and generate an audio response in the same language, she said.

The process is “pretty much instantaneous” as long as the communicators stay within the domain of the military, she said. “If you’re talking about sports, it’s not going to work very well.”

The Army is expected to provide a list of additional languages for the program by the end of this year, Lillie said. The company built a preliminary system for Dari, Afghanistan’s second national language, as part of several Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency programs to develop machine translation. The team expects to complete work on the language in the future for MFLTS, she noted.

Though language technology has historically been slow to develop, the past 10 years have seen a speedy ramp-up as products with language interfaces such as Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa have matured, said Sean Colbath, Raytheon BBN senior technical lead for the program.

The machine foreign language translation system is not meant to replace interpreters or higher-level language skilled personnel such as intelligence officers, company officials noted.

Colbath said the goal is to put “very advanced technology into the hands of a low-level soldier” to enable him or her to do the job required when there may not be other language support available.

While the Army tested the product and is the current customer, Special Operations Forces have also expressed interest in the technology, Lillie said.

Topics: Infotech, Information Technology, Battlefield Communications

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