Soldiers See Through Steel
An Army project closes a door, turns on a window and offers a virtual view of the outside world.
Researchers are developing new ways of enabling troops inside personnel carriers to see their outside environment without increasing their vulnerability to hostile fire. The goal is to provide enhanced 360-degree situational awareness from sensors installed on a vehicle as well as from other off-board cameras in the area.
Service members sitting inside certain armor-protected military vehicles are often similar to sardines, encased in a metal box with no means for ascertaining their surroundings. These all-metal, no-window platforms put troops at a definite disadvantage, unable to eyeball threats or opportunities.
A rapid-development group is working to improve knowledge of the outside environment using a glass-pane alternative that fits onto the back door of such platforms. The team also has created a version that pulls in additional systems for even more data sharing.
The Virtual Window effort is an innovation project at the U.S. Army’s Tank Automotive Research and Development Center (TARDEC). The premise behind such initiatives is to tackle problems through innovative means faster and at less expense than standard, high-dollar research programs. In the case of the Virtual Window, an industrial designer named James Scott drew an image on the back of an infantry carrier that would show occupants the environment on the other side of the ramp. Leadership quickly took to the idea, giving researchers the go-ahead to pursue it. “We looked at how to provide situational awareness visually without putting in actual glass,” explains Andrew Kerbrat, program manager for the effort.
Researchers brainstormed different ways to improve awareness before integrating a large display on the ramp of a Bradley fighting vehicle. The particular platform was selected for a prosaic, rather than a vehicle-specific, reason—TARDEC had one available for use. However, the concept technology is agnostic and could work on most armored troop-carrying ground vehicles. The Virtual Window idea is fairly simple, yet potentially revolutionary: Developers placed a camera on the rear of the vehicle and piped the video feed to the display screen so occupants of the automotive can see what is on the other side of the ramp, “which is huge,” Kerbrat states. “It’s amazing how much better you are when you know what’s around you than when you don’t quite have your bearings.”
As part of the development effort, the researchers hosted a Soldier Innovation Workshop in December 2012 with troops from Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, members of academia studying in creative fields and others to synergize ideas of how to address the situational awareness issue. The group also helped inspire a second iteration of Virtual Window, which allows squad members in the vehicle to disseminate information among themselves and even to pull in additional resources. For this second experiment, developers installed the technology in a Stryker, selected in part because of the onboard systems it already carries.
Unlike the original Virtual Window that only shows images from behind the ramp, the second version offers a 360-degree view around the vehicle via high-definition cameras. So if a commander says an item of interest resides 100 meters off the right side of the platform, occupants can see that item for themselves. The enhanced technology can also pull off-board camera feeds into the system to show, for example, what a remote unmanned ground vehicle is recording from its location.
Developers are designing Virtual Window 2 to pull in data from the commander’s Gimbal visual sensor that can survey farther distances, expanding the range of situational awareness capabilities offered to warfighters. Also available are feeds from individual soldiers carrying sensors. Information collected through the devices is piped to the vehicle, again increasing bearings and situational awareness for those riding in the back. To obtain some of the capabilities they seek, TARDEC personnel work with the Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center, which is providing sensors and other necessary equipment.
Riders additionally could use the display board as a virtual, mobile sand table for conducting mission planning or mission rehearsal. The capability allows for rapid reaction to changing situations, as leaders can take in the new information and quickly express visually revamped plans. Kerbrat says the focus of the Virtual Window work is to give all members of a squad, not only a commander, situational awareness. He adds this additional knowledge gives squads an edge they currently lack.
A second Soldier Innovation Workshop took place in May so TARDEC engineers could talk this time with troops from the 1st Cavalry Division and with students about other ideas to advance the informal projects. Emphasis is placed on the fact that Virtual Window and its spinoff are conceptual prototypes. The military has no plans or programs of record to adopt the technology at this point. In current forms, the experiment is not fieldable, and further work is necessary to reach that point, including a focus on ruggedizing. Where the technology goes in the future is undetermined, and TARDEC has no official plans or opinions about what happens next. The Army could decide to take advantage of the demonstrated benefits and move forward with integrating it onto platforms in different ways. Or, members of industry or academia could decide to pick up the idea and advance it through their own efforts. TARDEC only requests credit for its part of the work.
Officials with the center emphasize that the laboratory-only versions are important, regardless of what happens with them next. In fact, they believe the process of creating the technology is as valuable as the potential end product. TARDEC’s approach to proving the viability of a concept cuts through bureaucracy common in formal research and development, saving time and money while opening up opportunities for innovation. The process from when the engineer had the inspiration for putting a virtual screen on a solid steel door to having a vehicle equipped with the tool driving down the road took less than three months. If an idea fails to pan out, developers quickly can change tasks while determining what could be possible. Virtual Window is only one of a dozen such projects underway at the center.
Kerbrat explains that TARDEC is trying to anticipate current and future needs of warfighters to ensure they continue to maintain advantages on the battlefield. Through the center’s innovation process, personnel believe they challenge existing paradigms. “If the idea has merit, then we continue to investigate it,” Kerbrat says. “If it’s not a good idea, we wipe our hands and walk away from that. We don’t chase that rabbit anymore. That’s kind of the crux of the innovation process.” Not being part of a program of record is an enabler, rather than an inhibitor. The approach keeps problem-solving interesting. “For lack of a better word, it’s kind of fun,” Kerbrat states.
TARDEC offers the right environment for development with its combined access to personnel skilled in different areas, to platforms and to equipment to make modifications. In addition to the meetings with soldiers and academia, developers within the center meet weekly to cultivate creativity and to allow personnel to bounce ideas off each other. All the projects are briefed in an open forum that draws experts from various subject areas. “It’s become a very collaborative process within TARDEC and out of TARDEC,” Kerbrat says. He adds that the collaboration built into the process makes it so effective.
Tenacity is another key to effectiveness, he continues. When developers believe they have come up with a good idea, they keep chasing it down. That approach spawned Virtual Window 2. Engineers knew the technology offered a boon to troops, so they continued to pursue options that could make it better. Sometimes the work gives an inkling of projects that will see fulfillment 20 years down the road. In the case of Virtual Window, the benefit is immediate if a group with different resources decides to adopt it for maturation.