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Unmanned intel app could keep small units informed

Jun. 8, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Staff Sgt. Vincent Kelly monitors his real-time feed from unmanned systems during an exercise at Fort Benning, Ga., last month.
Staff Sgt. Vincent Kelly monitors his real-time feed from unmanned systems during an exercise at Fort Benning, Ga., last month. (Army)
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The Army is testing smartphone technology with Dragon Runner, an unmanned ground vehicle, and the Raven, an unmanned aerial vehicle. (Army)
The Army is testing smartphone technology with Dragon Runner, an unmanned ground vehicle, and the Raven, an unmanned aerial vehicle. (Army)

Small-unit leaders seeking info from unmanned ground and aerial vehicles have two choices: Attach themselves to their systems operator so they can see what he sees, or bombard him with questions over the radio that could chip away at both soldiers’ concentration.

A new device tested last month at Fort Benning, Georgia’s Maneuver Battle Lab provides a third option. And like many advancements in communication, it soon could come in app form for a smartphone.

The Small Unit Leader Situational Awareness Tool, or SULSAT, gives leaders their own real-time feed from available unmanned sources — tests at Benning included a Dragon Runner ground robot and a Raven UAV. The tech isn’t all that mysterious: A wireless signal from the unit’s tactical robotics controller, or TRC, gets beamed to the team leader, who can monitor the feeds on a smartphone. First Lt. Brandon Slusher, with A Company, 1st Battalion, 29th Infantry Regiment, used a specially designed Nexus 5, but SULSAT may integrate into the modified Samsung Galaxy models used in the Army’s Nett Warrior program.

The expanded situational awareness impressed Slusher, who served as platoon leader in the exercise.

The current system “definitely limits the leaders, and where they can position themselves,” he said. “Even when I did not have a SULSAT [during one version of the test], I didn’t look at the TRC controller. I relied on what [the operator] was seeing. During the scenario, that was fine. In a real scenario, I wouldn’t be able to ask him questions. I’d be controlling too many other elements at that time.”

Staff Sgt. Vincent Kelly, also of A Company, served as squad leader during the exercise and also praised the system, saying it “allowed me to make a better, conscious decision to maneuver my squad.” But there was a catch: The unit only received a clear signal up to about 10 feet away from the TRC.

Developers want SULSAT to reach 200 to 250 meters.

“One of the recommendations that we’re making is [researching] the type of Wi-Fi extenders you have in your home,” said James Falkenberry, project officer for the Battle Lab’s unmanned systems team.

Other solutions: Devices with external antennas, or changes to the backpack used to carry the router, putting less fabric between the antenna and the air.

Many of the Wi-Fi concerns could prove moot: Plans to integrate SULSAT and the TRC into the Nett Warrior system would put the signal over a secure radio band instead of Wi-Fi — extending range and providing necessary security measures.

“To continue the proof of concept, we have to get a little more range. ... Again, the goal is to get it transmitting with FM signals, not Wi-Fi. We’re just looking at what’s possible,” Falkenberry said.

The system’s slated for another exercise in October.

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