Army Researchers Tackling Soldier Power Problems
Army scientists and researchers are taking on a perennial problem for soldiers on the battlefield: powering up the many devices they are required to carry.
In recent years, troops have had to lug more and more devices in their rucksacks, from radios to remote controls to tablets, which has resulted in increased soldier load. To tackle the issue, the Army’s Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Cyber, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance — or C5ISR — Center is investing in new battery and power management technologies that officials hope will unburden warfighters and improve efficiency.
The C5ISR Center’s power management branch — which is nestled under the Army’s Combat Capabilities Development Command — is developing cutting edge tactical systems that can be handheld or soldier-worn.
Dr. Ashley Ruth, a research chemical engineer at the center, noted that power is a cross-cutting technology that is relevant across each of the Army’s six modernization priorities that Futures Command has been spearheading for the past three years. These include long-range precision fires; next-generation combat vehicles; future vertical lift; the network; air-and-missile defense; and soldier lethality.
“Power is instrumental for all of these,” Ruth said during an interview with National Defense. “Every single weapon system needs power.”
The office is developing a myriad of new technologies, including its small tactical universal battery system, an interoperable family of batteries that will enable standardization for soldier-worn and handheld equipment, officials said.
As the Army has outfitted soldiers with modernized systems over the past several years, “we’ve really seen where these different pieces of equipment would tend to bring their own either proprietary or unique power sources onto the battlefield,” said Dr. Nathan Sharpes, a research mechanical engineer with the C5ISR Center. “We were seeing this future where a soldier is going to have to carry 10 different types of batteries … even though they all push the same electrons.”
All these systems may have slightly different user interfaces and feature varying voltages and chemistries, he noted.
It’s difficult to pin down how many batteries the typical soldier carries today, Sharpes said. What an infantryman carries will be different from what a radio operator has on hand.
It’s hard to even grasp how many of these types of technologies the Army has in its inventory, Ruth added. “In fact, we’ve tried, and the Army doesn’t have a means to access information on how many individual battery packs we actually use,” she said.
Ideally, all the gadgets a soldier carries — from GPS trackers to radios to night-vision goggles — would all be powered with the same type of battery, Ruth said. However, there are a multitude of energy sources being developed individually throughout the service.
“It’s logistically burdening, as well as then cognitively burdening on the soldier to keep track of all this,” Sharpes said.
By simplifying the batteries troops carry, a soldier no longer must worry about whether he or she inserted them the right way into their device, whether they are mixing old and new cells, or if they are combining chemistries, Ruth said.
“When you’re getting shot at, it’s much easier to just unscrew the battery and stick a new one on,” she said. “Then you’re done and you’re up and running again.”
To achieve both simplicity and interoperability among different equipment, the center has been developing for the last year and a half the small tactical universal battery, or STUB, Sharpes said.
“It’s just the best, most advanced USB power bank that you can’t buy yet,” he said. The system contains some proprietary military protocols in it, he added.
STUB works by determining the voltage needed for a particular system, making the device interoperable with different equipment, he said.
Researchers are looking beyond Army needs and are also working with the Navy, Special Operations Command and even NATO partners to make sure STUB is interoperable with their devices as well, Sharpes and Ruth noted.
“Now, the types of cells, the chemistry, all of that that inside of the battery doesn’t matter as much … because the battery can make whatever voltage it needs,” Sharpes explained.
The STUB family of systems features eight different form factors, but the same interface and attachment features, he said. The smallest weighs about a quarter of a pound, and the largest weighs about a pound and a half. The initial iteration is powered by lithium-ion cells.
“When you get down into the handheld-size of devices, the size of the power source is just as important as how much energy is in it,” Sharpes said. “That’s why we rolled out with all these different sizes. They are kind of mix and match to where you could have the bigger one or a smaller one and the soldier essentially could decide on the fly what battery they want to take for a particular mission.”
For example, if an infantryman wants to have a lighter load, he or she could grab a smaller version of STUB, he said.
“Essentially, it’s all kind of plug and play,” he said. The center is “trying to simplify power for the soldier, [so] they’re not worrying about what type of battery or interface or chemistry” a battery has.
“A soldier doesn’t need to worry about any of that sort of stuff,” he added. “We’re just giving them a power brick that can be interoperable.”
STUB will help alleviate burdens for soldiers, as well as vendors and government program offices, Ruth said.
“Because program offices and vendors may not have a lot of experience involving battery [technology], chances are they tend to fall short in performance” when they build their own, she said. These performance issues could include safety concerns, a lack of ruggedness or even electromagnetic interference vulnerabilities, she added.
Additionally, once a program office invests in a battery technology for a particular system, officials will have to sustain that product over the long term, she noted. “It becomes a lot easier when it’s only one type of battery ... in the field.”
Having one system consolidates demand signals and allows for companies to manufacture the same battery at scale, she added.
“It makes the Army a better customer in the battery space,” Sharpes said. “Traditionally, the Army has been a very bad customer in that we want a very particular solution, and the manner in which we go about ordering these batteries isn’t always the best and it stresses the supply chain.”
A standard battery means overall lower costs, while also offering increased availability and reliability, he said.