Tactical mobility coming into the picture for on-ground soldiers

Officials discuss what's next for mobile devices in the military — from real-time video to head-up displays.

As portable devices become smaller and more powerful, their capabilities are being folded into tactical military units. The military is beginning to make more use of devices such as tablets and smartphones that can be used in a variety of ways to aid the warfighter.   

One such use could be aiding soldiers on the ground with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data from unmanned aerial vehicles flying above. 

In the near term, “there’s a more urgent need for…viewing of full motion video,” Maj. Kevin Shepherd, the Marine Corps’ Common Handheld Team lead, said at an event hosted by AFCEA’s D.C. chapter on Jan. 21. “We currently have UAVs all over the place that are piping out full-motion video and it sure would be nice if, as I’m getting ready to step off the line of departure, I’ve got real-time intel of what it is I’m going to be stepping into so I can see the other side of the building, I can see that insurgents just ran from here to there with a machine gun and so on – so we can adjust our plan on the fly.” Shepherd said. “I can mark it down on my screen, hit send and someone else who doesn’t necessarily have a video receiver and that’s not receiving that video can see that I just changed the plan.”

The military’s research arm has been looking into a similar concept of providing real-time situational awareness on the ground at the squad level, but by shrinking the ISR platform. Under the Fast Lightweight Autonomy program, the Pentagon wants squads to be able to deploy small drones that can fly autonomously from room to room – vis-à-vis a bird or insect – or up flights of stairs in buildings to provide an unprecedented level of situational awareness to soldiers.   

Tactical mobility from an Army perspective, however, is more focused on limiting the load for each individual soldier. “For the Army one of the biggest things anytime we look at new technology is what we call SWaP – size, weight and power,” Rick Walsh, mobile lead for the Army CIO, said at the same event.  The weight an individual solider has to carry at any given time can vary from 60 to 100 pounds.

“Right now if I’m carrying a backpack or I’m carrying a device, I’ve got to power that device.  Right now batteries are big. So in the future if we could do anything to support the soldier…I would ask to minimize and optimize power. If I’ve got a smart device and I can’t turn it on or it runs out of power, it’s not really a smart device – it’s now a weight that I have to carry,” Walsh said.

Down the road, Walsh said, he’d like to see head-up displays of ISR information so soldiers wouldn’t have to look down at a device.

J.D. McCreary, chief of Disruptive Technology Programs at the Georgia Tech Research Institute, said agility will be one of the most significant developments in tactical mobility in the short term. “Because if you have spectrum agility, [and] put a device in somebody’s hands and we live by today’s standards, it’s policy bound, it’s going to be frequency bound…you need these devices to be intelligently adaptive to their environment so they can continue to function in the face of, again, intentional or unintentional interference. That would be an important point,” he added.

Shepherd also mentioned that the Marines are working on a new program for handheld devices. “We have started a program now to build a handheld devices to the tactical edge for use in the field…for tactical use by the guy that’s actually holding [the device]…as well as some peripheral uses,” he said. “We started this endeavor about a year ago to figure out how to go into this best.”

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