Manportable Radio System Combines Night Sight and Sound
Seeing is believing when headquarters can view what a soldier is describing.
Warfighters on foot equipped with night vision systems now can give their commanders a real-time glimpse of what they’re seeing in the field. A new system that combines a portable radio with night vision goggles allows the optical imagery to be captured and sent across the same radio channels used for voice and data communications.
Each piece of hardware—the portable radio and the night vision system—is in service with the armed forces of several countries around the world. Engineers basically combined the two functions to produce a single system that allows commanders to remotely view a night scene from the warfighter’s eye view accompanied with geolocation information.
Known as the Individual Soldier System (ISS) and manufactured by Exelis Incorporated, the new system combines a software suite with existing hardware. These three major subsystems generate a two-way imaging capability that also allows the warfighter to view imagery relayed by headquarters.
The i-Aware Tactical Mobility Night Vision Goggle (TM-NVG) optical system features an overlay display that enables mobility information to be viewed by its wearer. It weighs less than 2.2 pounds (1 kilogram) and can run on one lithium AA battery. An intensified camera inside the goggle set allows command and control personnel to view live imagery from the field.
The company’s SpearNet team member radio serves as the transmission device for the TM-NVG. The 1.5-pound radio operates in the 1.2-1.4 gigahertz band, and it can network with satellite communications and long-range radio systems. Information from the TM-NVG system can be sent across the SpearNet self-healing mesh network, which in turn can display visual tactical information such as maps and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) video.
Enabling these capabilities is the company’s Jagwire content management suite. It allows a headquarters to track the warfighter’s position via the GPS tracking capability inherent in the SpearNet radio. Commanders can ascertain the individual’s position and direction on a battlefield map, and they can pull in the video from each individual as desired. Jagwire allows that information to be stored with time and location stamps for future reference, and it allows commanders to annotate that information with searchable data.
“It gives an incredible capability to command and control—not only to assess battlefield situations in real time, but also to analyze intelligence gathered in the mission,” claims Eric Garris, network systems strategist and chief engineer for Exelis. He notes that Jagwire has been “extensively fielded” in the United States and deployed in service missions for some NATO forces in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
A warfighter wearing the full ISS can use an Android mobile device as a user interface that drives the display in the i-Aware optical system. The user can receive information, such as a UAV video or imagery from a ground robot, from headquarters via Jagwire, as well as exploit all Android commercial applications. Garris notes that the company is developing its own suite of Android applications to provide enhanced tactical capabilities to the warfighter.
Garris explains that many ground forces, including those in the United States, have moved toward Android gear as a soldier computing device. “People around the world can relate to a smartphone-type application device very easily,” he points out. “It requires minimal training; they understand how to use it; and it creates an open architecture where we can provide an initial suite of applications and capabilities.”
He continues that the screen image on the Android device can be placed in the goggles, so the warfighter need not remove the eyepiece to view the Android display. At night, the display on the actual Android device can be turned off so it shows only in the goggle display. The blackened Android device would retain its touch functionality, Garris notes.
In a typical ISS configuration, the SpearNet radio is mounted in a pouch on the soldier’s back. It connects via a single cable to interface electronics mounted on the back of the warfighter’s helmet, which in turn are connected to the goggle unit on the front. The interface allows connectivity with other devices such as smartphones or other radio systems, Garris says.
One advantage to this configuration is that the radio can operate in difficult environments such as building interiors, Garris observes. A warfighter can enter a contested building and transmit real-time imagery in a darkened room to a headquarters unit. He notes that Jagwire originally was designed as an aerial and UAV video capture system, so it already is tied into that type of network by design. An ISS applies it in a ground platform—the warfighter—so that a headquarters has access to the warfighter as a sensor in the field.
Many of the company’s customers already have either SpearNet or TM-NVG. Garris says that either one can serve as the basis for a full ISS. “It is a very easy step to then go to the complete Individual Soldier System from there,” he states. Customers with U.S.-based radios that have Jagwire can adopt the TM-NVG to build a complete ISS system. “Each of the three components has significant capabilities in themselves,” Garris continues. “We’ve geared the capability to be flexible where we can sell it as a complete solution; or where the customer already has some [components] in place, we then can provide the rest of the suite of capabilities.”
The mobile ad hoc networking SpearNet radio offers a sustained data transfer rate of 2 to 3 megabits per second—2 megabits via transmission control protocol (TCP) and 3 megabits via user datagram protocol (UDP). This permits transmission of higher resolution and higher-frame-rate video, Garris offers. For other radios, the data rate would have to be no lower than at least 250 kilobits per second to maintain an effective video transmission. The system is scalable for different kilobit rates, he explains. “We can scale resolution and frame rate and the video quality based on the given system’s capability.”
Work on the ISS began about one year ago, Garris relates. The company produced its TM-NVG and SpearNet in separate divisions, which he describes as silos. At the onset of 2013, the company underwent significant organizational changes that led to the merger of the communications and the night vision businesses into the same division. This merger removed hindrances between the silos and enhanced communication among employees, he says.
As a result, engineers began to exchange ideas about combining radio and night vision. Garris, who was the original developer of the TM-NVG, relates that he began to work with Eric Whitehill, who was the developer of the SpearNet radio. The two explored the idea of consolidating the two products as they saw a market need for this combined capability. Adding Jagwire from the company’s geospatial systems division closed the loop on the integrated system, Garris continues.
This approach changed each system from one that is warfighter-oriented to one that is part of a command and control system, he explains. “From the technical side, all three technologies are extremely complementary. A lot of synergies already were in place that we took advantage of with this overall integrated solution,” he explains.
The first capability was demonstrated at DSCI in September 2013, and it has been demonstrated to customers worldwide. The company has at least one foreign customer that has solicited a full quote on the system, and the company has submitted a proposal on the full ISS to another country.
The company is taking orders now, and Garris expects the ISS will be available for delivery by the end of 2014. Future iterations will build on technology advances already in the works.
Wireless enhancements would help eliminate some of the cabling, Garris offers. This would entail base-level integration for that capability in the future. Other improvements would include geospatial aspects that would allow a warfighter to see relative position information of other local friendly forces or of targets of interest. This would provide spatial orientation of both the wearer and objects in the field. Garris describes this capability as similar to the augmented reality found in Google Glass.
In addition, Garris notes, the i-Aware goggles are designed for night vision. They can be used in daytime, but not optimally. However, the company is looking at incorporating an effective daytime capability in the future.
Roughly 75 percent of future upgrades would occur through software development, he attests. This would provide enhancements in system capabilities for the individual warfighter. Of the 25 percent that constitutes hardware, most of this involves commercial technologies that would be integrated into the system.