Army developing Objective Force sensors

The Army Research Laboratory is developing a network of unmanned ground sensors (UGS) that will help the Objective Force accurately locate targets that might go undetected by present systems.

"UGS will allow the Objective Force to detect and locate targets where we currently cannot," said John Gowens II, chief of the laboratory's computer and communications division, during his presentation at the International Quality and Productivity Center's Network Centric Warfare 2002 conference in Arlington, Va., last week.

By the end of the decade, the Army plans to field the Objective Force, transforming the service's armored forces to make them better able to survive an all-out fight. The Army's vision for networked UGS is that the network is the sensor, Gowens said.

Networked sensors for the Objective Force will complement global surveillance initiatives and "fill the battlefield situational awareness gaps," using many different types of sensors, including seismic, magnetic, infrared and radio frequency, he said. Drawing on all of them through "sensor fusion," a soldier will be able to determine, if five lights go on at once, whether it's one target identified five different ways or five different targets.

The first demonstration of the networked sensors is planned for February 2003. The lab hopes to have the system ready for the field, including sensors outfitted on unmanned aerial vehicles and small, ground-based robots, one year later.

But Gowens cautioned that many challenges are involved in the effort, including:

* Establishing robust communications in energy- and bandwidth-limited environments.

* Organizing ad hoc networks, having to adjust to various delivery mechanisms, bad connectivity, node failures and other problems.

* Operating over noisy wireless channels because most sensors are no more than 12 inches off the ground.

* Dealing with interoperability with the other military services.

* Protecting sensor information while deployed.

Securing the information captured and transmitted by the sensors is an obvious concern, but so is ensuring that the sensors themselves are not put to use by U.S. adversaries, which is why "we can't put crypto on the sensors since the enemy could just pick them up," Gowens said.

Another area where the laboratory is making headway is in the development of a prototype of an energy-efficient mini-radio for use on the battlefield. Gowens said the model is about 4 inches in diameter (about the size of a CD), and the goal is for the units to operate for 50 days and at distances of up to 400 meters.

The prototype radios, of which there are about four, cost about $4,000 each, but the Army hopes to build them for less than $200 per unit when complete, he said, acknowledging that there is not a cost formula in place to ensure that happens.

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