Flying eyes

Tiny UAVs are just one way the Defense Department stays ahead of the game

Ordered to clear a building in a tough Baghdad neighborhood, an Army squad prepares to enter it from ground level. Inside the building could be armed insurgents, booby traps or innocent civilians.

Before any soldier takes a step into the building, the squad commander sends in half a dozen hummingbird-like, microflying machines to scout the interior.

Equipped with video cameras, the devices hover and dart into every dark corner of the building, and relay to the soldiers the information they need to safely enter.

Today, hummingbird-sized aerial vehicles exist only in computer simulations, but military officials hope the technology will become a reality. The hardware and software required to develop the flying devices as well as the devices themselves are emblematic of the Pentagon's modernization efforts.

Go-anywhere, high-bandwidth communications, solutions that deliver a common operational picture, and technologies that train soldiers and bring about new innovation are all major keys to the Defense Department's modernization effort, industry experts said.

Business opportunities abound today and in the future for technology companies that can help the Defense Department achieve those goals.

One common picture

To better deal with new threats, the armed forces are transitioning from a large-force structure to a more nimble modular one. The hope is that smaller and faster forces can react more quickly and be more lethal when needed.

For instance, one of the Army's goals for the Future Combat System, a group of networked weapons, communications and intelligence platforms, is to be able to land a brigade anywhere in the world within 96 hours.

A modular structure may be more effective, but it also intensifies the need for a strong unification of command.

The new structure could involve hundreds of people, deployed at multiple locations, but all focused on the same mission.

"Unified communications that enables coordination and collaboration becomes important, so that all critical elements, such as video, voice communication and manipulation of documents, are there when you need them," said Wayne Hulit, director of defense sales for Radvision Inc., a Fair Lawn, N.J., collaborative technology provider. "All those communication elements are essential whether you are in the planning phase or execution phase of a mission."

An effective common operational picture lets commanders make life-saving decisions more quickly. They can select and hit targets faster, which could reduce casualties.

Any technology or integration of systems that helps the military achieve that will be highly sought after, experts said.

Radvision's defense collaboration suite, for example, unifies the communications infrastructure. The Army today is using the company's battlefield videoconferencing system throughout Iraq and Afghanistan.

The common operational picture doesn't apply only to combat situations, it will apply to all of the Defense Department's work.

"There's the command and control side, and then the business systems environment, and they are treated like they are two separate entities completely," said Mark Testoni, Oracle Corp.'s vice president of defense operations. "One of the things everybody has come to realize is that there needs to be a joining of that information, because there are interrelationships."

The reliability of aircraft, for example, depends on visibility into the supply chain. Decision-makers need to know the location of aircraft parts and mechanics.

Today, such visibility is clouded by too many independent IT systems and too much distributed data.

"The data is so fragmented and so distributed, there's no easy way to pull it together where it can be leveraged in that one common operating picture, where somebody can make a decision with real-time information," Testoni said. However, he said that he expects the Defense Department to improve the situation over the next five years.

Communications ahoy
All collaboration tools and infrastructure tools are useless if everybody in the chain of command, from the Secretary of Defense down to infantrymen, cannot connect to one another.

"I think the satellite is probably one of the biggest growth areas going forward, that at least the Army says it's going to do," said Dan Garber, Radvision's director of government sales. "We're already seeing more and more of our communications being put up on satellite."

That push and the move from the Army's Mobile Subscriber Equipment to the Joint Network Node network that relies on satellites and IP technology are sure to create opportunities.

"The stated goal of the military is everything over IP, and that's certainly in line with what we're thinking," said Daniel White, vice president of engineering for DataPath Inc., a Duluth, Ga., company specializing in satellite earth terminals and network solutions.

DataPath was among six companies that won spots on the Army's five-year, $5 billion Worldwide Satellite Systems contract.

The other winners include Boeing Co.; D&SCI, Eatontown, N.J.; General Dynamics Corp.; Globecomm Systems Inc., Hauppauge, N.Y.; and TeleCommunications Systems Inc., Annapolis, Md.

Under the contract, each company must bring turnkey commercial satellite systems and services for satellite terminals. They will compete against each other for task orders.

Along with satellite connectivity there's a big thrust for mobility and wireless communication, as well as solutions to minimize bandwidth requirements, White said.

"What we're seeing is the need to put more and more information closer to the edge [and] the soldier," White said. "Soldiers are acting as sensors and relaying that data back to headquarters so it can become actionable. Communications networks are becoming very overlaid and very high-bandwidth. It's not just bits and bytes anymore, it's a lot of video, which can be megabits of data."

All that connectivity has to be flexible. Defense Department officials want to be able to roll a satellite trailer to a site and quickly establish network connectivity. If they need to change sites, they want to be able to quickly move the trailer and set it up in the new location.

Training and innovation
That desire for flexibility and connectivity extends to training troops.

After the military's experience in Somalia, for example, it became apparent that fighting in an urban setting would be the wave of the future, and new training techniques were sorely needed.

The Defense Department contracted with General Dynamics to set up the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La., to provide realistic training in an urban setting, said Fred Pickens, vice president of business development, integrated instrumentation with General Dynamics IT.

General Dynamics IT handled much of the training center work, and was created after the company acquired Anteon International Corp. earlier this year for $2.2 billion.

The training center includes 360-degree camera coverage, both inside and out, interactive targets for troops to do live-fire exercises, special effects such as smoke, smells, sounds and explosions, and an integrated control console from which an operator controls the targets and special effects while digitally recording the exercise.
Controllers can watch onscreen as a unit trains, Pickens said.

"All the controller has to do is touch the screen, and that will put a time code on the action. After the training, the time tags list the key events that need to be reviewed," he said.
The training center's success has prompted the Pentagon seek to network more virtual and real training together into combined larger exercises, said Raymond Sheperd, General Dynamics IT's vice president for range instrumentation.

"Some of the challenges the Army is facing now, if you look at where they're fighting today, are not your classic tank-on-tank battle," Shepherd said. "The training needs to keep soldiers ready to fight in these other environments."

The flexibility to convert a live fire range into convoy training is the kind of flexibility the Defense Department officials will demand.

Staff Writer Doug Beizer can be reached at

About the Author

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Washington Technology.

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