Army Builds Small Unit Net Cloud

The Army recently took a big step forward in its quest for the “holy grail” of battlefield network connectivity: providing satellite imagery, video feeds from aerial drones, text messaging and more robust communications to small networked teams on the move through rough terrain. The idea is to create a platoon or smaller unit computer “cloud” that can move with the soldier as they move, providing communications and connectivty between each other and higher headquarters even when dispersed.

The Army took a big step forward in its quest for the “holy grail” of battlefield network connectivity: providing satellite imagery, video feeds from aerial drones, text messaging and more robust communications to small networked teams on the move through rough terrain. The idea is to create a platoon or smaller unit computer “cloud” that can move with the soldier as they move.

Networking vehicles together is one thing — vehicles have the onboard power and can carry the big antennas needed to tap into big data pipes. The challenge is to replicate that same mobile network and data exchange among individual soldiers, and maintain connectivity even as they spread out across mountainous or in urban terrain.

The Army created a platoon level cloud, by patching together various radios, computers and sensors, including the Land Warrior digital network and communications ensemble, said Army Lt. Col. James McNulty, talking to reporters on a conference call yesterday. Soldiers exchanged video imagery and voice communications, as well as other data, in real time to each other as well as back and forth between their distant command post. The tests demonstrated, “both horizontal, or small unit sharing abilities, as well as vertical or company and above sharing capabilities,” he said.

We wrote recently how the key to mak­ing the new “dis­trib­uted oper­a­tions” concept — gaining popularity with the Marines and folks at Joint Forces Command — work is to push­ down to the com­pany and pla­toon level the high-​​tech com­puter based com­mand and con­trol and key “enablers,” such as aer­ial drones for sur­veil­lance and on-​​call artillery and bombers. The Army’s experiments are a big step in filling this yawning capability gap.

McNulty is the program manager for the Common Controller, a remote control device under development to allow soldiers to control a suite of unmanned aerial and ground sensors. The once-promising Land Warrior suite, which in its current iteration is far too heavy and bulky for practical use and is on the Army’s chopping block, is being used as a “surrogate” until the “highly capable Ground Soldier System is fielded,” says the Army.

“Within a platoon level cloud, you get this data that’s coming right to the Common Controller… high resolution, high quality video,” while text messaging is passed along through networked radios, said McNulty. Using what’s called the Man-packable Network Integration Kit (M-NIK), which is a “router and network mediator,” along with a “long-haul” satellite radio, two “geographically dispersed” infantry platoons were connected with voice and data. In turn, information gathered by the infantry platoons was passed back and forth between the platoons and the company, battalion and higher command posts.

This is only the beginning, he said. The next step is to inject some “network lethality” into the small unit cloud, allowing soldiers to accurately call in indirect fires from artillery and either ground or air launched missiles. The Army also hopes to be able to push down to soldiers the high quality video feed gathered by Apache attack helicopters loitering overhead. “If you were able to pipe down a video feed to the small unit… then you could, as a company commander, be looking at the same picture the Apache pilot is looking at. That’s pretty powerful, because now you have a common picture.” Such an exchange between ground troops and helicopters would greatly aid in pinpointing targets, particularly at night in urban or mountainous terrain, or where civilians on the battlefield demand precise targeting.

The M-NIK is still too heavy, McNulty said, it currently weighs around 20 pounds; but he expects that continual advances in miniaturization and battery technology will eventually produce a package weighing much lighter. Getting satellite connectivity in a small form factor radio remains a huge technology challenge, he said. But he’s hopeful. “You’ve got to start somewhere, if you wait until you can do everything you want to do and it only weighs eight or six pounds, then you lose years. The idea is to get this out there and keep the architecture open… every year that goes by it will get more capable and lighter.”

The effort to cobble together various technologies to produce a small unit computer cloud is emblematic of a shift in the Army’s acquisition strategy in the last couple of years. Instead of waiting for a single piece of networking gear that can do everything, as in the much troubled Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) effort, the Army is looking to grab emerging technologies and bundle them into something that is good enough and can be put in the hands of soldiers today.

Of course securing that small unit cloud from enemy hackers poses another huge challenge as this worrying Wall Street Journal story shows. [Eds. note: AFP reports that the military had fixed the vulnerability before the WSJ story ran. No one would comment on how or exactly when the loophole was closed.]