Consumer Electronics Show becomes showcase for military technology

March 1, 2006
As consumer-based technology has continued to evolve at an ever-faster pace, the U.S. military has faced the dual problem of providing the latest capabilities to fighting forces in the field while understanding and being able to combat those same technologies that also are available to enemy combatants.

By J.R. Wilson

LAS VEGAS - As consumer-based technology has continued to evolve at an ever-faster pace, the U.S. military has faced the dual problem of providing the latest capabilities to fighting forces in the field while understanding and being able to combat those same technologies that also are available to enemy combatants.

One result of that was the creation of the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force (REF), which quickly moves to the field new, “small” technologies that tend to fly below the radar of what REF director Col. Gregory Tubbs calls “big Army” issues. REF, which first made its mark during the initial combat phases of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom, became a permanent part of the Army command structure in 2005.

The primary goal, Tubbs says, is to provide a quick and useful solution to soldiers in combat-from whatever source-to improve capability, lethality, and survivability, and then work with the big Army to explore developing technologies in times of peace. Tubbs made his comments at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) last January in Las Vegas.

“When we identify an immediate warfighter need, we provide spiral one, which is just safe enough to use,” Tubbs explains. “Spiral one tends not to be very maintenance robust, so we make improvements in later spirals, based on soldier interaction, which is another advantage to what we do. We don’t keep it in the lab until it is perfect; we give the soldier enough to make it work-to save his life today, not two years from today-then spiral it every time we can figure out product improvements, swapping that out to get the new version into the soldiers’ hands.”

REF officials do not look at vehicles or armor, but at smaller, more individualized needs and solutions. They take their input from every possible source-especially soldiers in the field, but also their own staff of military and civilian scientists and soldiers who live and work alongside troops in the field, as well as retired military, industry, and the media.

Tubbs counts among his biggest successes the phraselator-a handheld device that can translate and “speak” hundreds of simple phrases into the language of the local population, and the WellCam-basically a wireless camera on a rope used to check for hidden weapons caches. One of his most sought-after solutions is anything related to improving or replacing batteries in the field, to provide soldiers with a small, lightweight, long-lasting power supply for everything from radios to electronic gunsights.

This new, immediate confluence of consumer technology and military application can see a device fielded and in use within weeks of coming to REF’s attention-even as a “big Army” program office looks at a more militarized future version. This is the reason that the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, without direct intention, also becomes a showcase for possible future military components.

This year’s CES offered several consumer software and hardware applications that may have military utility-a fact exhibitors have not only come to recognize, but are now actively pursuing.

Hydrogen fuel cells

One such item that has already attracted the attention of the special operations community is a new hydrogen fuel cell from Jadoo Power in Folsom, Calif. While not exactly a new technology-the NABII was first introduced about two years ago for use with television remote video cameras-it has continued to evolve, getting smaller and lighter. Today, the standard N-Stor 4 fuel canister is about the size of a soda can-it measures 2.5 by 4.5 inches and weighs two pounds. The single-canister FillOne refill station is roughly the size of half a loaf of bread. Jadoo also offers a three times larger, four-canister FillPoint refuel station.

A standard commercial hydrogen tank can refill about 100 canisters, which in turn can provide more than 100 watt-hours of power each to virtually any device from the N-Stor 4 or 275 watt hours from the N-Stor 8, which is about triple the length of the original canister and developed to meet the extended needs of special ops. The N-Stor 4 can be refilled in one hour, the N-Stor 8 in two.

The canisters are also hot-swappable within the power unit they plug into, which can be attached to anything from video cameras to field radios. With one refill station and available hydrogen at a base camp or in a Humvee, a squad could carry one or more power units and half a dozen charged canisters, easily distributed among them, and remain in the field for days with more than enough power to meet their operational needs on a variety of equipment.

At least, that is the concept. Some form of fuel cell is a likely answer to the disposable battery problems that currently plague the military. The need for hydrogen tanks may be the biggest drawback; engineers say a system could be devised to pull hydrogen directly from the air, but Jadoo’s commercial clients have no need, and certainly no interest, in paying the cost.

So it is likely not a technological so much as a requirements and funding problem. That would not be an REF issue, however. As Tubbs says, any serious modification of commercial products is left up to the appropriate Program Executive Office, with field experience input from real soldiers who have used commercial (possibly lightly modified) versions.

Military iPod

The Consumer Electronics Show also showcased a possible military extension of the commercially popular iPod, a device many young soldiers probably have among their personal possessions in the field. The 6-ounce iSee Video Recorder from Advanced Technology Office in San Carlos, Calif., uses a 30-gigabyte standard or 2-gigabyte Nano version iPod as a hard drive to record and playback audio, video, or still graphics, which can then be viewed on the iSee’s 3.6-inch LCD screen (the iPod simply slides into a connector slot).

The iSee is a pass-through device and has no internal memory, so data storage depends on the iPod being used. Nonetheless, such a device might enable the military to convert individual soldier iPods into a simple device for distributing maps, sensor data, photos of high-value enemy personnel, targets, etc.

This possibility becomes even more attractive when combined with the wide range of security systems offered at CES for iPods, cell phones, PDAs, computers-even thumbdrives. These mostly software, but some hardware, solutions would enable the user to encrypt files, create high-level password protection or physically lock down a portable device.

Handheld devices might also be used with a militarized version of a new remote access service from Avvenu in Palo Alto, Calif., that enables users to access a desktop computer directly and securely, and then search for and view documents or even properly resized video using any Internet connection. With an overlay of military encryption, such a system conceivably could speed the transmission and remote access of real-time sensor data and intelligence information.

Any look at CES 2006 would be incomplete without noting the arrival of what some observers jokingly-but somewhat accurately-called the “cone of silence”: Babble from Sonare Technologies in Chicago. It is a three-part Babble set that plugs into a telephone-potentially, with some modification, military field communications and satellite phones, as well. It then takes the user’s voice, scrambles it, and broadcasts it through two speakers, creating what sounds like the indecipherable “buzz” of a room full of people talking at the same time.

This is not “white sound,” which simply covers other sounds. By using the speaker’s own voice, Babble makes it impossible to isolate what is being said from the sounds the unit produces, masking the conversation to anyone even a few feet away while remaining clear to the person on the other end of the line.

The intent was to provide inexpensive privacy for people in cubicles or thin-walled offices, reception desks, and other locations where phone conversations are easily overheard. But the potential for such a capability in the military-from the Pentagon to a command tent in the desert-is obvious.

With continued advances in microprocessors, memory, and other electronic building blocks, consumer technology, as evidenced at CES, seems limited only by the imagination. And products designed for consumer use-even when the primary market is teenagers-can have startlingly useful military applications.

Before REF, what was seen for the first time at this year’s CES probably would not have made it (officially) into the hands of individual warfighters until the end of the decade. Now, however, any of these, should they prove to have real utility, could be in use in Iraq, Afghanistan, South Korea, or Kansas by the time you read this column.

“The single most important thing we have done is have a dynamic impact on getting a number of technologies successfully through the system to the warfighter,” notes Maj. Gen. Roger A. Nadeau, commander of the Army Research Development Engineering Command (RDECOM), of which REF is a part. “The most important task from this point on is continuing to grow technology and ensuring getting it to the warfighter quicker becomes the natural thing to do and is not impeded by past bureaucracy. It is a change in how to approach things, breaking down old rules for the good of the soldier.”

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