The U.S. Army’s Military Intelligence Corps wants to equip its field operatives with a pocket-size tool they can use to locate and identify adversaries, and then disseminate that information to nearby troop commanders as quickly as possible. Their tool of choice—a modified Google Android smartphone with specialized apps, a setup none too different from the ones so many civilians use for multitasking in their daily lives.
Military Intelligence, which has issued basic Android smartphones to a small number of its operatives in the past two years, is testing new Samsung Galaxy Note 2 Android sets loaded with software—known collectively as Windshear—that could send and receive biometric, GPS and other data via a secure mobile “cloud” network. Another key feature under consideration as part of Windshear would give operatives access to streaming video taken by drones overhead, something not available today to troops on the ground.
Smartphones and a secure, real-time connection to data are necessities if the U.S. military is to stay a step ahead of its adversaries, says Col. Jasey Briley, a retired Army intelligence officer acting as a consultant on the Windshear project.* Whereas the Army has for at least the past decade used mobile devices to perform biometric identification, those instruments were only as effective as the data they contained. “The photos and fingerprints in the databases are not updated in real-time,” he adds. “This is where Windshear could provide an advantage—it’s always being updated.”
A squad or company entering a village in Afghanistan, for example, needs the latest information regarding that location before they arrive, including whether it is friendly to U.S. troops or has recently switched allegiance, says Briley, who last served as a senior intelligence officer with the 18th Airborne Corps before retiring in May 2012 and becoming CEO of JBB Group, an intelligence and security services firm.
Troops have long had access to real-time communications via wireless radios, but a smartphone could send and receive digital photos of enemy combatants known to be operating in a particular location. “In the past that basic information might have been copied over the radio or the squad wouldn’t get it at all,” Briley says. The Army has also used satellite phones, but that technology has not trickled down to the squadron level, much less to individual soldiers. “It’s an expensive piece of equipment and it’s expensive to get the satellite signal,” he adds.
As anyone who has lost cell phone coverage during an emergency knows, a mobile phone is only as reliable as its network. Keeping smartphones operational in remote areas without much of a telecommunications infrastructure is not easy. There are many locations—such as the tribal zone straddling the Afghan–Pakistani border—where a cell signal cannot reach, Briley says. In many field operations soldiers communicate via vehicle-mounted cell towers, although sometimes those soldiers must venture into rugged terrain and leave their vehicles behind. In such cases, he adds, the soldiers can download maps and other useful information before venturing too far from the mobile cell tower.
Windshear would not solve connectivity problems in such cases, but it will enable broader data sharing when soldiers can sync up with the cloud. Windshear operates on a smartphone just like an app from a user’s perspective, says AJ Clark, president of Thermopylae Sciences+Technology, the Arlington, Va., provider of Web-based geospatial software used to build Windshear. Yet the software is actually an “app container”—tapping on the Windshear screen icon brings up a new screen filled with more specialized apps that change automatically based on a soldier’s location, mission and specific military specialty.
Military Intelligence first evaluated Windshear’s ability to deliver cloud-based biometrics, facial recognition, reporting and ID scanning capabilities as part of the May 2011 U.S. Joint Forces Command’s Empire Challenge, a showcase for emerging military technologies. The Army might further scrutinize the software and smartphones as part of a Network Integration Evaluation (NIE) in 2014, one of a series of semiannual, solider-led tests of commercial and custom-designed technology that could be used to improve the Army’s tactical network. This would be different from previous field testing because the NIE is a formal event where many different Army systems come together to see how a new system holds up in a replicated field environment, Clark says, adding that “systems nominated for NIE testing can be fast-tracked to the field if they are positively received by the soldiers.”
Windshear also plays into the U.S. Department of Defense’s larger “mobile device strategy,” which they outlined in May 2012. (pdf) This plan lays out a number of scenarios in which smartphones, tablets and other modified mobile consumer electronics might assist the military. Field units could maneuver in unfamiliar environments with help from real-time maps that soldiers annotate and share with other troops via their handheld devices. Engineers would be able to take digital pictures of mechanical parts, using those images to order replacements via the cloud. Another possibility: Military health care providers could diagnose injuries as well as remotely access lab results from the field.
Getting soldiers to embrace new mobile gadgets will not be a problem. “Our young soldiers grew up with smartphones—they’re the ones really pushing the technology onto the battlefield.” Briley says. “When you introduce something like this, they’re like, What took you so long?”
*Correction (04/01/13): This sentence was edited after posting. It originally referred to Jasey Briley as a Lt. Col. Follow Scientific American on Twitter @SciAm and @SciamBlogs. Visit ScientificAmerican.com for the latest in science, health and technology news.
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