Information Warfare: Atrix And Galaxy Go To War

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November 23, 2011:  The U.S. Army has embraced commercial smart phones and tablets for battlefield use. The troops have been clamoring for a combat smart phone, and now the Atrix smart phone and Galaxy tablet are being tested. Both are Android devices.

Atrix has a 102mm (4 inch) 564x960 pixel display. It weighs 135 grams (4.76 ounces) and has eight hours of talk time and 260 hours standby. Atrix has a dual core, 1 Ghz processor with one GB of memory and 16 GB of internal storage. It accepts a MicroSD/HC card with up to 32 GB. There is a microUSB connector, GPS, accelerometer and compass built in. There is a dual flash 5 MP camera, a .3 MP front facing camera plus a plus 1280x720 pixel (720p HD) 30 fps camcorder. There are built in apps for Calendar, Alarm, Document viewing, Calculator and World clock. Messaging handles SMS, MMS and predictive text input. Atrix can play and record MP3s.

The Galaxy tablet is a 388 gram (13.58 ounce) device featuring a 90x154mm (3.54x6.05 inch) display with 600x1024 pixel resolution. There is a dual core processor and a 3 MP camera plus much of the same accessories as the Atrix. While the troops prefer the smart phone, there are some battlefield uses that require a larger display. These two devices are called NWEUD (Nett Warrior End-User Device) by the military.

Last year, the army sent an infantry battalion, equipped with then-current Nett Warrior gear, to Afghanistan. The heart of that system was a 2.3 kg (5 pound) wearable (and networked) computer with an eyepiece for the display and a handheld (or worn on the arm) input device (keyboard). The battery ran for 24 hours, and took four hours to recharge. The eyepiece display can show anything a computer screen can, but normally shows a map, displaying the constantly updated position of other friendly troops, and most recently reported location of the enemy. Nett Warrior integrates radio, GPS and 16 GB of storage for maps, pictures or whatever. While troops find this very useful in some situations, there was still the weight problem (troops tend to be loaded down with too much gear). Still, the test was largely a success. That should not be surprising. Nett Warrior is the result of over a decade of prototypes and troop feedback. An increasing portion of the feedback has been positive. But for all troops, the system is still too heavy, and for most, it's not worth the extra weight.

Soldiers and marines know that most smart phones can do the same job as Nett Warrior, and now the army agrees, and has been testing Atrix and Galaxy to see how commercial designs can be used to replace the older NWEUD prototypes.

The problem with Nett Warrior was that previous efforts in this area came close, but did not make it in reality. For example, three years ago, after more than a decade of effort, and about $500 million, the very similar (and original) Land Warrior program was cancelled. Well, sort of. A lot of this futuristic gear for infantrymen, meant to be part of Land Warrior, was already out there and in use. However, the Land Warrior program included a lot of technology that still wasn't ready for prime time. In effect, while the Land Warrior program was dead, the Land Warrior concept liveed on with new stuff the combat troops were using. Thus the Land Warrior was first renamed "Ground Soldier Ensemble," but then became "Nett Warrior" (after Medal of Honor winner Robert Nett). The troops will continue to get new tech that works on the battlefield, but the wearable computer that is the centerpiece of Nett Warrior is being replaced with a smart phone or tablet version (NWEUD).

Over half a century of studies has resulted in knowledge of what an infantryman needs to be more effective. They need to know where they are, quickly. Having a poor idea of where you are proved to be one of the main shortcomings of armored vehicles. Armored vehicle crews tend to be cut off from this while inside their vehicle where they are even more easily disoriented. When the shooting starts, even the vehicle commander, instead of standing up with his head outside the turret, ducks back inside to stay alive. Infantry aren't much better off. Although they can see their surroundings, they are often crouching behind something. When getting shot at, standing up to look around is not much of an option.

Nett Warrior gives Team Leaders and Squad Leaders (and eventually, each infantryman) a smart phone, perhaps still using an eyepiece as a display (attached to the helmet, and flips down for use), and the smart phone/tablet touch screen to control the thing. GPS puts the soldier's location on the map shown in the eyepiece. Meanwhile in Iraq, infantry officers and NCOs, equipped with map equipped GPS receivers (at first, then smart phones), found the map/GPS combo a tremendous aid to getting around, and getting the job done. Nett Warrior also provides a wireless networking capability, so troops not only saw where they were in their eyepiece, but could receive new maps and other information. Another goal is to use a vidcam to transmit images to headquarters, their immediate commander, or simply to the other guys in their squad. Perhaps most importantly, the Nett Warrior gear provides the same capability as the 2003 "Blue Force Tracker", and showed Team Leaders and Squad Leaders, via his eyepiece, where all the other guys in his unit are. When fighting inside a building, this can be a life saver.

Early testing with the original Land Warrior showed that there were several serious problems, some of them are still around. The battlefield wi-fi system took about ten seconds to update everyone's position. Manufacturers promised to eventually get down to a third of that, but real-time updates are still difficult to get all the time. The troops managed to work around that, up to a point. Between 2006 and 2008, the system was made faster and more reliable. At this point, the biggest problem is the weight. Now, the Nett Warrior smart phone version largely solves the speed problem.

The earlier versions of Land and Nett Warrior provided lots of useful feedback from users. For example, the troops wanted a keypad, at least similar to a cell phone, so they can more easily send text messages (like many of them do now with their cell phones.) The small vidcam mounted on the end of everyone's rifle was dropped, although it may eventually return. This was delivered, but no one could make the extra poundage disappear. Tests with the smart phones have showed that the troops, who grew up with texting, were quick to use it in combat situations.

While all the previous testing was going on, troops were seeing much of what they wanted show up on smart phones. American combat troops tend to be heavily into gadgets of all kinds, but particularly those that might help them survive in combat. They saw commercial smart phone technology quickly solving the same problems the army is having with Nett Warrior. The troops were right.

Nett Warrior, the Son of Land Warrior is already changing the way troops fight. Everyone is now able to move around more quickly, confidently and effectively. This model has already been demonstrated with the Stryker units. Captured enemy gunmen often complained of how the Land Warrior equipped Strykers came out of nowhere, and skillfully maneuvered to surround and destroy their targets. This was often done at night, with no lights (using night vision gear.) When you have infantry using Nett Warrior gear to do the same thing on foot, you demoralize the enemy.

For a long time, the biggest problem was a rather mundane one, battery power. Expected advances in battery technology did not appear, so even if all the technology worked, there was no way to carry sufficient batteries, much less keep Nett Warrior users supplied with them. Rechargeable batteries, with a longer life between charges, have largely solved that problem, but largely by not solving the weight problem.

Troops in combat have some unique problems keeping smart phones operational. For one thing, there’s the problem of providing a reliable signal. But that’s long been a problem, and there are a lot of new solutions that will work with a smart phone. Then there’s the need for encryption. Again, that’s another problem that smart phones have already dealt with several times over. Thus the intensive work to turn commercial cell phones into NWEUD. If the smart phone manufacturers deliver, the troops will use it. They most certainly want it.

 


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