The concept of Augmented reality (AR) is not exactly new. Pilots have been taking advantage of the modern equivalent of the former Head Up Display to have images of their battle-management systems and avionics displayed on the inside of their helmet visors for some time now. In the commercial world, AR visors are an accepted fact of life, with uses ranging from video games to treatment for PTSD in which patients can be taken back through virtual reality scenes in which they learn how to cope with the highly stressful events that led to their diagnosis.
Microsoft has been a major force in this expanding market place and the US recently placed an order for 100,000 of its HoloLens AR headsets in order to enhance its training programmes for soldiers on the ground. They already use Microsoft-headsets during training exercises, but they are now considering their use in live combat situations. “Augmented reality technology will provide troops with more, and better, information (with which) to make decisions”, a Microsoft spokesman said in a recent statement. Microsoft is expected to deliver 2,500 headsets within two years.
The U.S. Army has said that these are not the sort of items worn by the general public; they will incorporate a range of new technology such as night vision and thermal sensing, as well as monitoring systems to measure vital signs such as breathing and “readiness,” (meaning whether a soldier is fit to fight or continue an operation), as well as to monitor for the concussive effects of nearby explosions etc. A version might also be fitted to provide hearing protection, presumably using Active Noise Reduction technology – which might also be capable of enhancing the wearer’s hearing.
Microsoft Employees were not keen on the contract and had urged the company not to even bid for the work. “Many Microsoft employees don’t believe that what we build should be used for waging war,” commented one of their spokesmen.
The US Army is of course not alone in its quest to maximise the effectiveness of their soldiers. Most armies have developed high-tech gadgets for individual infantry soldiers as part of programmes with titles such as “Infantry 2000” etc., the date being an indication of just how long these sorts of projects have been around. The significance of this new development is in the fact that up to now the individual on the battlefield has always been at a disadvantage compared with troops using crew-served weapon or in vehicles fitted with the most advanced sighting systems. This is most clearly demonstrated when a section dismounts from an APC, when a commander goes from being able to see in all weathers and in the dark out to thousands of yards, and then climbs out into a world limited to a few tens or hundreds of metres using night vision googles or the Mark 1 eyeball.
The other aspect of the googles as suggested by reports is that individual soldiers will have considerably enhanced situational awareness. Although no actual details are available, it is possible that data feeds to individual soldiers, based upon their location and command structure, will provide them with a limited version of the sort of data that tanks and other vehicle-mounted displays now offer. This means a soldier will be a lot more aware of friendly forces around him as well as local threats. Whether or not later versions will extend to being able to provide targeting information for local support weapons is not known, but it might be assumed that this is but a short step along the development cycle.
UK hi-tech initiatives
In related development, the UK has started to show some of the sorts of robotic equipment it is considering for the future battlefield. GPS allows a range of interesting ideas such as tracked “mules” able to carry ammunition and other combat supplies forward to troops in the firing line, thus reducing the risk of casualties but also increasing the amount of stores that can be delivered. If made sufficiently covert, these would also reduce the likelihood of giving away the locations of friendly troops to the enemy, although this will depend heavily upon stealth technology and good management of signatures such as engine noise and heat emissions from exhausts etc.
The Army is carrying out a number of tests of possible equipment in a project called Autonomous Warrior (catchy!!) which was due to start on the 12th of this month. According to an MOD report: “One of the key areas it is set to test is the autonomous last mile resupply. The ‘last mile’, which represents the extremely dangerous final approach to the combat zone, is crucial to ensuring soldiers have the food, fuel and ammunition to keep them alive.”
Defence Minister Mark Lancaster said:
“Our Armed Forces continue to push the limits of innovative warfare to ensure that we stay ahead of any adversaries or threats faced on the battlefield. Autonomous Warrior sets an ambitious vision for Army operations in the 21st Century as we integrate drones, unmanned vehicles and personnel into a world-class force for decades to come.”
It sounds good. Let us just hope that the reality matches expectations. That said, it is likely that it will be some time before troops will have the confidence to rely upon this sort of technology to the extent that basic battle-drills will be modified to any great extent. As many have learned to their great benefit, the Mark 1 Eyeball is still one of the very best surveillance devices out there. It will be the same for many other tasks that might be assisted by the use of robots; good to have them but when the “proverbial” hits the fan, its back to basics again.