Networked soldier – Sensor integration and the human factor

When army leaders began speaking of a revolution in military affairs in the 1990s, they envisioned a network of platforms sharing information across the battlespace. Few imagined that among the nodes in that network of satellites, aircraft, ships and reconnaissance vehicles, the most important sensor might still be the individual soldier.

Rick Bowes, a former armoured officer who served for 23 years with the Canadian Army, leads land strategy and business development for DRS Technologies Canada. He spoke with associate editor Chris Thatcher about changes in sensor technology and the all-important human factor.

You’ve noted that the revolution in military affairs has now reached down to the individual soldier. How so, and what does that mean for sensor technology?

In my latter years in the army the overarching theme in combat development was this idea of the revolution of military affairs – network-centric operations. But the visualization of that was very platform-centric; it was based on entities in the battlespace such as aircraft, vehicles, sensors and various other capabilities all being connected, sharing information, imagery and data, all leading to a higher level of collaborative knowledge about the battlefield. It was based on our understanding of the technology at that time. Those computers or digital radios all needed to be mounted on a platform of some sort. But that fit with the operational scenarios, which were based on the traditional Cold War thinking or what played out in the first Gulf War – a like-versus-like scenario.

From high-end peacekeeping operations in Somalia and Bosnia in the ‘90s, we’ve transitioned to complex operating environments in Afghanistan and Iraq against a non-traditional enemy. The knowledge and information exchange requirements have gone up in direct proportion to the complexity. There are many more factors involved in understanding the situation and in decision making, and most of those factors are more than just pure military ones. Typically, situations often happen today at the level of the platoon or the patrol, yet the networked information system is well above that. The lower end user doesn’t have access to that information, but ironically that is the user who needs it most. The requirement to be networked hasn’t changed, but now it is right down to the individual soldier, and that was never foreseen.

Now technology is leading us to things that would have been unheard of 15 years ago. In a device like a Blackberry, that weighs less than a pound, you have a high bandwidth of data connectivity, access to the Internet, the ability to take a picture, share imagery and voice communicate around the world. And for very little extra cost you can make it a secure device. The only difference between the Blackberry and what we would need in the field is to “ruggedize” the device and the system that supports it.

What technology is emerging now?

We’re starting to add highly capable sensors that can acquire information through wide use of the electromagnetic spectrum, be it the visible spectrum or near, mid- and long-wave infrared. We’re also tacking on other sensors and integrating them with weapons. This is a step change in capability. The other aspect of change, though, is in communications and navigation capability. In my days in the army, which aren’t that long ago, you had a paper map and a compass. The advent of the GPS was a revolution because so much of military operations is based on geography, knowing where you are in the battlespace. We’re seeing small form factor but highly reliable, highly rugged communications capability. Improved ability to know what is out there, to communicate with everybody, and to know where you are in relation to everybody else – all those things add up to a huge combat multiplier in the field.

Another technology on the horizon is smart weapons – integrated pieces of technology such as sensors and target acquisition devices that are all networked, sharing power and allowing that weapon to be much more effective. The basic rifle is still the basic rifle. The housing mechanism has not changed in decades. So what you’re seeing is soldiers strapping all kinds of gear around it, whether it’s a laser designator or a thermal weapons sight. But it is all just bolted on. Each of those devices has its own power sources, and if it is gathering information, it’s not sharing. In another 10 years or so, that weapon will become an extension of the network.

That speaks to the Christmas tree effect – too many gadgets attached to soldiers’ main systems. Does it suggest we’ll be adding more?

Rather than adding on, we’ll be taking away. What I mean is that devices are getting smaller and becoming more converged. So a radio is more than a radio, it is now a navigation device and a computer and one or two other things, much like a Blackberry or iPod. Where you might have had 10 devices you’ll now have five, but they will still perform all the same functions. The fundamental information requirements of the soldier have not changed: to know where he is on the battlefield, to know where his buddies are and where his boss is, and where the enemy is. Beyond those core requirements, everything else is nice to have. Technology can augment how that information is gained, but anything that simply adds more weight without significant corresponding value is not going to last. Weight is paramount.

Are soldiers ahead of industry in how some technology is actually used?

Our soldiers are incredibly clever and adaptive. They’ll take two things and make them into something new. And they’ll adopt commercial products. The Economist recently had an article about U.S. soldiers who were using iPods for ballistic computations. This tells you the trend is towards lighter, capable technology that is easily stowed, easy to carry and easy to use.

There are frustrating things about how some equipment is designed. Devices that are big and heavy and have little utility in the field tend to fall off – they are literally dropped in the sand because soldiers don’t want to carry them. In the initial days of field computers, they were bricks. So the smaller and more reliable technology is, the more soldiers will keep it.

That is in part a power issue, is it not?

There has to be a revolution in power. Most new devices, no matter how efficiently they are designed, are still dependant on the AA or lithium battery. And the more batteries you have, the more weight you have. We need a leap in technology. And it’s not just power storage; it’s also power generation and power management. Most systems just draw power; there’s still no management to it.

Are there other aspects to the technology that need to change?

We’re still challenged with the way information is being presented to a soldier. The paradigm is still the iPod, Blackberry or notebook computer type of visualization. I think you’ll eventually see augmented reality. Some countries have experimented with head-mounted displays, but the jury is still out on that capability because, from a human factors perspective, while the technology itself is effective in that it can display in a small form factor device, experiments have found that having this device in front of one of your eyes becomes distracting. And in a combat environment the soldier still gathers most of his information with his five senses. But it is an area of technology that you’ll see down the road. There’s also been talk of smart textiles. Again, it’s in the experimental phase. But the idea of using clothing on your body as conduits for power and data is certainly out there. Biometrics is also another area of experimentation.

Integrating an individual soldier into that network poses numerous connectivity challenges. What still needs to be resolved?

Standards, bandwidth, security. A soldier will tell you the less wires and cables he has around him, the better he is. So the desire is to have all your devices wirelessly networked. But there is a security issue with all of the wireless standards. Bluetooth, 802.16 and 802.11 are very useful in the commercial world, but security authorities tend to look at these standards with a bit of suspicion because they are open in comparison to military waveforms.

There’s never enough bandwidth. A dynamic network, where everybody is moving and we’re always trying to find new paths to each other, has significant processing requirements. If you are a moving force, everything is going to be mobile. The more mobile your network, the more network management and bandwidth problems you’re going to have. In the commercial world we’re used to static IP addresses; in the military world, dynamic IP routing is a challenge. It can be done but it eats up a lot of bandwidth.

Providing soldiers with an abundance of new sensor data might have its advantages. But is there a risk of pushing too much onto the soldier, of overwhelming him with information?

It’s information overload but it is also what I’d call information distraction. And it goes back to what I was describing as the core information requirement. You can give a soldier all kinds of information, but is it useful? On a navy ship, the operations and control systems only display information that is vital to the operation or defence of that ship. Because the navies of the world have learned that the more information you show an operator, the more chance he could be distracted by something that is not very important. We’re now seeing it with GPS navigation systems in cars. You have to find that balance of the right information at the right time, but no more.

Are there other human factors we need to understand?

One of the myths of the revolution in military affairs was that, as we became more networked, we would become more dispersed. Yet when we look at soldiers, even vehicle crews, there is an almost anthropological need to be in physical proximity to each other especially in tactical situations that are tense, and where fear and stress are at a high level. I think we’ve dispelled that myth. Networked centricity may give you better knowledge about what is going on, but there is a basic human need to close ranks when you are under the stress and fear of combat. I don’t think you are ever going to get away from that. It is a dynamic of combat that goes back through recorded history.

What are the implications of that for industry as it develops new soldier capabilities?

In my mind, the paramount design implication is to build soldier systems that reinforce soldiers’ ability to reliably collaborate, coordinate and communicate in all conceivable tactical situations. When two soldiers in a fire team lose sight of each other and cannot hear each other, their soldier system must be up to the job of giving them mutual confidence that they have each other’s back. This means reliable communications, and reliable exchange of positional, targeting and other combat information.

Given the need for standards, is there shared knowledge developing in industry around baseline systems – is there greater collaboration?

What you’re seeing is the commoditization of a lot of this. I don’t know if it’s collaboration. There are certain technologies that a decade ago were state of the art: only two or three companies had the intellectual property to own that market space. Today, particularly in sensor technology, it has become commoditized. Where you get a leg up on your competitor, it is through tweaks in performance, price, weight, space: if you can build a better performing yet lighter and smaller sensor, that becomes value added.

You can buy night vision equipment on the open market. Fifteen years ago that was very controlled technology. The same with GPS. We used to call it tactical to practical; the trend now is practical to tactical. Things like miniaturized computing come from the commercial world. Military companies are not leaders in this any more. And in areas where they are, such as sensors, the time from when a sensor is introduced in the military market to when it shows up in a commercial catalogue is very small. It may not be military grade, but you can buy basic image intensification devices today on the open market with a resolution that was a closely held secret only 10 or 15 years ago.


An interview with Rick Bowes

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