The voice of combat

Voice-recognition software is a useful tool for millions of people working in the relatively quiet surroundings of a home or office. But try using one of these commercial products in the noisy confines of a tank engaged in combat, and the limits of voice- recognition applications quickly become apparent.

Voice-recognition software enables a computer to respond to spoken commands rather than keystrokes and mouse clicks. The technology is not new, but the Army is deliberately pushing its limits. Voice recognition is expected to enable soldiers to transmit messages "hands free" so they won't have to drop what they're doing when time is critical.

Army officials want voice-recognition programs that will work in tanks, planes and helicopters in battle, and they intend to integrate voice recognition into upgraded versions of the 60-ton M1A1 Abrams tank and the Bradley fighting vehicle. Among other things, the modernized combat vehicles will use the service's command and control system known as Force XXI Battle Command Brigade and Below (FBCB2), an integral part of the Army's Tactical Internet. The service started a new program in June with the goal of completing the voice-recognition integration in 2004. Officials declined to say how much is being spent on the program.

Initially, Army officials envision using voice commands to send so-called SALT reports, in which soldiers report the size, activity, location and time of enemy forces spotted on the battlefield. For example, the soldier spotting an enemy armored personnel carrier would tell the computer: "SALT report." The computer would prepare to receive the information, and the soldier might say, "Enemy equipment type: APC. Quantity: six. Enemy activity: attacking."

The computer would convert the information into a format for transmission via a pre-established distribution list that might include the unit commander, intelligence officers or artillery forces.

But some Army officials anticipate even greater capabilities in the future.

"We can grow this to perform vehicle-platform functions, like asking for a diagnosis on the vehicle's health," said Randy Stevens, an OptiMetrics Inc. contractor supporting the Abrams and Bradley efforts. "And then down the road, we could have fire controls — telling the tank gun to slew left and fire, for example." He noted, however, that those futuristic technologies would only be developed if combat commanders decide they need them.

The service is already considering equipping its tanks and Bradleys with three technologies known collectively as integrated command, control and communications. The components are tactical voice activation, cordless communications and a helmet-mounted display.

"That really gets you in a hands-free operation and allows crews to be off the vehicle and unplugged but still able to communicate," Stevens said.

Lockwood Reed, an electronics engineer at the Army Communications- Electronics Command's (Cecom) Research, Development and Engineering Center, Fort Monmouth, N.J., said the service is exploring the next generation of voice-recognition technology, which might find its way into new combat vehicles and even robots.

For now, though, the service is taking a "crawl, walk, run" approach, working with one of the 38 message formats used with FBCB2, Stevens said.

FBCB2 is designed to work with tactical radios and computer systems to provide a wireless, mobile Internet capability that gives commanders and troops a complete picture of the battlefield.

One goal of the system is to give soldiers precise information about their locations and those of other friendly forces and enemy troops. Showing friendly forces on a digital map is relatively easy, but getting accurate information about the location of enemy units can be difficult. The faster reporting of enemy locations made possible by a voice-recognition system would enhance the capabilities of the FBCB2 system, said Timothy Rider, a Cecom spokesman at Fort Monmouth, where FBCB2 is being developed.

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