Lightening a Soldier's Load with a Pocket-Sized Solution

January 2013
Topics: Combat Service Support, Command and Control, Mobile Technologies, Systems Engineering, Mobile Technologies
Soldiers on patrol wear heavyweight technology that allows them to act as self-contained command and control nodes.
Soldiers use Nett Warrior Android prototype

Today's ground soldier must remain alert and agile while on patrol, even while loaded down with the weaponry and technology that keeps him secure and in contact with command. The ensemble may include body armor, voice and data radio, headset with microphone, helmet-mounted display, backpack-size computer, navigation module to provide GPS, chemical detection sensors, and extra batteries to keep everything powered.

The expensive technology elevates individual soldiers to self-contained command-and-control nodes. It also weighs about 30 pounds.

"When we evaluated the soldier's collection of equipment and saw how heavy it was, the power behind it, and the cost involved, we realized we needed something lighter, cheaper, faster, and better," says Erin Connors, MITRE project lead for Natick Soldier Research Development and Engineering Center (NSRDEC). NSRDEC in Natick, Mass., is responsible for developing and determining a wide variety of technologies that directly affect soldiers—from meals ready to eat (MREs) they carry and climate-appropriate uniforms to the shelters they use in theater.

Connors's team developed key components of the Nett Warrior Android prototype, a device capable of supporting advanced navigation, situational awareness, GPS, and other sensors soldiers need. Late in 2012, NSRDEC transitioned the prototype to the program of record, PM Soldier Warrior.

Nett Warrior Android replaces heavy, expensive, wearable technology with a half-pound Android-based phone. The device provides an open-source tool the military can load with the information portrayal and the communications, command, and control capabilities required for an individual soldier's circumstances.

A 5-Star Performance

Beginning with the earliest demonstrations, the military gave Nett Warrior top ratings.

"At the Army Expeditionary Warrior Experiment, soldiers rated it five out of five stars, which means, 'Get it in the field now.' We received a lot of positive feedback from the soldiers," Connors says. This year, a Rapid Equipping Force will deploy with the devices for an in-theater evaluation. In fiscal year 2013, the military will deploy 3,000 Android units, each at a cost of between $500 and $600—a fraction of what the individual components would have cost.

Creating the architecture to accommodate third-party developers' applications was the team's most significant challenge. For the Nett Warrior prototype, Connors and her team, including Kevin Boston, Michael Krutsch, Michael Kristan, Lily Wong, Dave Bryson, Geary Sutterfield, Matt Kaplan, Mike Bixler, Jonathan Wielicki, and co-op Gabriel Brandao, developed the strategy and the architecture for the overall system. This allows other contributors to develop the individual applications that comprise the Nett Warrior's expanding suite.

"MITRE's data model allowed for all the different people working on the system, NSRDEC, Nett Warrior, and Joint Battle Command Product Line-Hand Held to use the same code base at the same time," Connors says. Certain teams built what in a consumer context would be apps, and others worked on the network that enabled all the components to communicate.

MITRE developers built a mapping application that makes it possible for soldiers to pinpoint their own location even while off-line. By uploading the latest maps of the squad's intended destination before they begin patrol, members of the unit can keep track of one another through a secure connection until they restore communication with command. Pre-loaded maps include satellite imagery that helps soldiers maintain situational awareness. The MITRE team also built the framework for an experimentation database that collects network and application transactions to assess sub-system performance during field experimentation.

Power Struggle

The MITRE team's next challenge was addressing the amount of power the unit consumed. "I think the power consumption on the Android was the biggest surprise of all. The display screen takes a lot of power, and so do the sensors," Connors notes.

The solution they pursued was not much different from the steps consumers might take to prolong battery life on their own phone. "We looked at not having the screen on at all times, and then using the connection to the radio as a trickle charger. Soldiers usually bring a back-up battery with them anyway."

Using the Nett Warrior system, soldiers need to carry a cell phone battery, but not the variety of supplemental power packs that individual devices require. Software battery savings came in the form of reducing the time to parse and process incoming messages and reducing the memory footprint of several applications, most notably the map engine that nearly all applications interact with.

Connors says the MITRE team and NSRDEC benefit from the team's multidisciplinary approach. "We were spread across several departments and had the advantage of being able to reach back to previous research for the answers we needed. Creating the initial prototype took six months. Now we're working on developing advanced information portrayal capabilities for the system."

—by Molly Manchenton

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