By John Hewitt
Smartphones and tablets have been taking the military by storm. In short order they have proven that they can do a better job in many areas than special purpose systems, some of which have been under development for fifteen or more years. Now DARPA has issued a public proposal for the development of an Android-based system that can integrate multiple camera streams and send the processed data to helmet- or rifle-mounted displays, as well as to fellow combatants and central command centers.
Operating under codename PIXNET (Pixel Network for Dynamic Visualization), the project includes a mandate to optimize size, weight, power, and cost, attributes (known as SWaP-C in military-speak). It also calls for the helmet- or weapon-mounted cameras to collect data across the entire visual and IR spectrum. Composite images are then to be created by fusing this data and delivering it to displays that can be viewed in direct sunlight or discreetly in darkness. Fused images with data overlays have been likened to “Predator Vision” from the famous science fiction movie.
Systems which additionally incorporate face recognition technology would allow ground troops to tag potential foes as hostile or neutral, and share the data with fellow troops on the network. New techniques from the frontiers of neuroscience and computer vision may additionally be used to automatically pick out threatening targets, reducing the mental strain on war fighters.
A few clues to creating hardware that is more SWaP-C were hinted at in the proposal. These include better designs for apertures, focal plane arrays, packaging, and materials science. The cost of the system has been prefigured at $3300.00 for a projected demand of 10,000 units per month. It is interesting to note that most of the basic building blocks for the technology exist and are in active use on the battlefield. The problem DARPA is facing can be summed up in one beastly word: noninteroperability. Most of the current hardware has dedicated functionality, operates in isolation of other instruments, and cannot effectively share data.
Having first looked to the iPhone 4S and iPad to address the problem with an odd set of adapters and apps, known as the Special Operations Apps/System for Optical Attachments, or [SOA]2 (pictured above), PIXNET is now looking to Android to solve the interoperability issue.
Exactly how this Predator Vision system is to integrate with existing army communication infrastructure is not made entirely clear. The 4th Brigade Combat Teams of the 10th Mountain Division presently in Afghanistan have, for example, brought along customized Android-powered Motorola Atrix devices. They are part of a communications program known as Nett Warrior. Troops will be able to transmit data in a series of relays using Rifleman radios connected to the Atrix devices. General Dynamics has also been recently tapped to furnish over 2,000 Nett Warrior radios to begin delivery in early 2013.
Commercially available Ku-band Satcom has been commonly used by the army for real-time data and video communications. It can provide voice-over-IP, dynamic IP, and videoconferencing, as well as access to classified and unclassified networks. It appears that dedicated satellite communications will always be required for longer range communication, backup, and security in the absence of commercial coverage, but the on-board radios in Android devices may eventually be utilized at least for local communications. Apps written to use the smartphone’s radio should be easier to upgrade and transfer to new Android hardware as it is deployed in the field.
The old model in which the military obtains its instruments under the oversight of decades-long projects is now almost entirely gone. The new model is using off-the-shelf components which can work together and be easily replaced. The public sector has long benefited through spin-off of military technology (see: Changing the world: DARPA’s top inventions), and this trend is likely to continue into the smartphone age, only now both sides will be working with greater cooperation to drive the state-of-art forward.