September 13, 2005
Heres another example of wartime needs, and the sense of urgency it creates, speeding up the development of new equipment. It also shows how a lot more military equipment innovation is coming bottom-up, instead of top-down. The Special Forces have been doing their own thing for decades, but now divisions and brigades run their own little R&D operations. An example of how this works is ROVER (Remote Operations Video Enhanced Receiver). This device uses a satellite data link to get the video from overhead UAVs or aircraft. A Special Forces soldier, just back from Afghanistan, walked into the Aeronautical Systems Center at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in January 2002, and asked the technical people why his guys could not have a device that would allow them to watch the video being generated by a Predator, AC-130 or other aircraft overhead. Since it was the Special Forces troops on the ground who were running, and fighting, the ground battle, it would help them a lot if they could see the real time video from above. At that time, the video was being viewed by people in the aircraft, or the UAV operators (who often were back in the United States, running things via a satellite link.) The ground troops had to ask the air force what could be seen on the video, and there was usually a delay in getting that information. It would be much better for all concerned if the ground troops could see that video in real time.
The air force people went to work, and in two weeks had a ROVER prototype that Special Forces personnel could take back to Afghanistan. ROVER I was not terribly portable, but the Special Forces could haul it around in a hummer, and see what any Predators overhead were seeing. This proved very useful. A few months later, ROVER II appeared, which allowed troops to view UAV vids on a laptop computer. Last Fall, Rover III, a 12 pound unit built to be carried in a backpack, was put into service. Although ROVER IIIs cost $60,000 each, they address dozens of suggestions and complaints from the troops who used earlier ROVERs. Some 260 are on order, and 700 are expected to be in service by next June. They are being used in Afghanistan and Iraq, and can grab video feeds from army, marine and air force UAVs and bomber targeting pods (which have great resolution, even when the aircraft are 20,000 feet up.)
The Rover IV appears next year. It will allow the users to point and click on targets to be hit. With ROVER III, the guys on the ground can see what they want bombed, or hit with a missile, but have to talk the bombers to it. This happens often, especially when the target is behind a hill or buildings, preventing the ground troops from using their laser range finders to get a GPS location. With ROVER IV, the bomber pilot, or UAV operator, will be looking at the same video as the ground troops, and can confirm that the indicated target is what is to be hit. This is particularly important in urban warfare, where the building next door might be full of innocent civilians.
The ROVER gear is operated by air force ground controllers, but the army is eager to get even smaller and lighter units into the hands of platoon and patrol leaders. Because its wartime, theres not much to stop this from happening. And happening in the next year or so. Without the wartime pressure, it would have taken a decade or more to get ROVER to where it is in only three years.