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SSC-Natick Press Release

U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center-Natick
Public Affairs Office
Kansas Street
Natick, MA 01760-5012

Contact: Jerry Whitaker -- Chief, Public Affairs Office
(508) 233-5340
Jerry.Whitaker@natick.army.mil

Date: September 20, 2004
No: 04-36

Pathfinder seeks to increase battlefield communication

NATICK, Mass. -- Laser beam trip wires, flying cameras, roving toy-sized vehicles and a local wireless network boosted by “SuperCrumbs” are shaping up into a connected system of systems under the Pathfinder Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration (ACTD).

Pathfinder ACTD, sponsored by the Special Operations Command with the ACTD and Urban Technology Office at the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Mass., serving as technical manager, is an effort to integrate unmanned ground vehicles, unmanned aerial vehicles and unattended smart sensors into a mobile, self-forming and self-healing network. The network enhances situational awareness, command, control and communications to commanders and assault forces operating in urban areas.

“It’s helped to give Soldiers reconnaissance and tie data together so that it’s easily shared,” said Adam Fields, Pathfinder ACTD senior engineer. “Instead of one guy getting the information that gets bottlenecked, everyone can get it at the same time.”

Started in October 2002 with the War on Terrorism well under way, the ACTD is preparing for the culminating event in February 2005 and then wrapping up with an extended user-evaluation of the ACTD products through September 2006.

“The integration (of the systems) is starting to work,” said Susan McKinney, ACTD and Urban Technology deputy program manager. “It’s been hard to plan because things have fluctuated wildly for the entire duration.”

She said the ACTD has conducted dozens of technology working group assessments to check equipment function in the field, several limited objective experimentations to enable Soldiers to use the equipment and further refine it, and one military user assessment with Rangers on a training exercise.

Fields said he and other team members were embedded with the Rangers during the user assessment because the Rangers’ operational tempo is so high that they had insufficient time for new equipment training on the system. The unprecedented opportunity gave the Pathfinder team a chance to experience real field conditions while gaining a better understanding of the operation of the system and its performance.

“I wasn’t feeling too good at first, but we were able to fix mistakes,” Fields said. “The feedback they gave was that this has potential. They said to make the changes to see that it works and give it back to them in February to operate it themselves.”

Pathfinder is focused on enabling commanders and warfighters to understand the situation and develop a decisive plan before making enemy contact for faster action and more efficient use of resources.

The system would be used in small team operations consisting of early-entry Special Operations and lightweight conventional forces. No more than 200 warfighters would be engaged for a limited duration and focused objective in a relatively small geographic area. For the culminating demonstration, Rangers will seize an airfield to accommodate arrival and deployment of a direct-action assault force into an urban area.

Specific technologies to be employed fall into five areas using mature products now available for purchase that meet Pathfinder requirements.

Networked

The network is the backbone of the Pathfinder system. Network repeaters take the form of small stationary black box sensors set known as “BreadCrumbs” or “SuperCrumbs.” These network nodes can be placed almost anywhere, including on an unmanned ground or air platform, or a warfighter. The SuperCrumb is in transition to the 3rd Infantry Division through a rapid fielding initiative.

Sensing

Stationary and mobile acoustic, seismic, magnetic or imaging sensors are a piece of the reconnaissance and surveillance capability.

These sensors are hand-emplaced on the ground, in trees or any other strategic location, or can be mounted on an unmanned ground or air platform for a variety of purposes, to include increasing area perimeter security while concentrating troops where you would expect to see the enemy, according to Andy Mawn, ACTD and Urban Technology Office program manager and Pathfinder ACTD technology manager.

“It could be a light beam that’s broken when the enemy passes by to let our guys know someone’s approaching,” Fields said. “You can place these further out from the troops to better warn them. It makes them a more powerful fighting force.”

Eyes in sky

Man-portable unmanned aerial platforms, such as the Raven, developed by the ACTD and Urban Technology Office, and Pointer, are the air vehicles capable of conducting day or night video surveillance and can relay communications for troops with broken radio signals.

Transition of the Raven to the Army via an urgent need statement and to the Special Operations Command via a combat mission need statement are transition highlights for the program, according to Mawn.

Targeted

Targeting is another technology area for the ACTD, and Pathfinder leveraged the Talon robot, which is commonly used for jobs best avoided by warfighters, such as entering a booby-trapped cave. The ACTD is integrating the Special Operations Forces Laser Aiming Module used to send a coded laser to guide smart munitions to a target.

“It’s on the robot, so you don’t expose (Soldiers),” Mawn said. “You can clearly identify targets without having Soldiers get into harm’s way,” Mawn said. He added that by using a radio relay attached to it, troops can drive it out to longer and more useful distances.

Displayed

Display tools are necessary for processing and reviewing information from the sensors and unmanned platforms.

A hardened laptop computer or similar handheld device holds the database, a single place for command and control. Pathfinder is leveraging the Tacticomp handheld computer, with its internal networking capability that could provide the functionality of several pieces of gear, such as the Soldier radio, Global Positioning System receiver and laser rangefinder in one package.

“Everybody equipped with a computer is plugged into what’s going on. It’s a wireless network, a little World Wide Web for all the guys on the ground,” Mawn said, adding that network nodes are another technology that has transitioned to the Army.

“We’re looking at tools that have multiple capabilities, and we’re constantly working the transition issues,” Mawn said. “By integrating existing technology they’re already using, that frees research and development dollars to fill in holes in the ACTD.”

Three new proposed ACTDs are in the pipeline to experiment with an unmanned helicopter, take Pathfinder to a higher unit level and further refine small unmanned aerial vehicles. Meanwhile, all hands are on Pathfinder.

“We have all these pieces that need to work together,” Mawn said. “All the ingredients are good. Now we have to mix them for the final product.” For more information about the Soldier Systems Center, please visit our website at: http://www.natick.army.mil.


This page last updated on 23 January 2004.