Cave Computers: Installing sensor networks in a hostile environment

Last year, Dr. BenjaminSchwartz approached AMREL about his need for a mobile computer to install a sensor network in Virginia’s Omega Cave system.  Putting a sensor network in an extensive cave system is no picnic. Dr. Schwartz and his team needed to haul hundreds of pounds of equipment through wet mud, narrow passageways, and steep vertical inclines. The mud alone on a cave researcher’s clothes can be 60 lbs.

Dr. Schwartz needed a computer that is light, mobile, and would absolutely not fail. When you’re miles underground, there are not a lot of options if your computer breaks down.

AMREL recommended the ROCKY DB6.  It not only runs the same programs as the laptop that Dr. Schwartz had been using, but it also is substantially lighter.  Furthermore, it is has been independently certified to be fully rugged, and had been successfully deployed in harsh environments around the world.

 Learn more about the fascinating challenge of installing sensor networks in a cave, and see amazing photos.

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Cave Computers: Installing sensor networks in a hostile environment

Last year, Dr. BenjaminSchwartz approached AMREL about his need for a mobile computer to install a sensor network in Virginia’s Omega Cave system.  Putting a sensor network in an extensive cave system is no picnic. Dr. Schwartz and his team needed to haul hundreds of pounds of equipment through wet mud, narrow passageways, and steep vertical inclines. The mud alone on a cave researcher’s clothes can be 60 lbs.

Dr. Schwartz needed a computer that is light, mobile, and would absolutely not fail. When you’re miles underground, there are not a lot of options if your computer breaks down.

AMREL recommended the ROCKY DB6.  It not only runs the same programs as the laptop that Dr. Schwartz had been using, but it also is substantially lighter.  Furthermore, it is has been independently certified to be fully rugged, and had been successfully deployed in harsh environments around the world.

 Learn more about the fascinating challenge of installing sensor networks in a cave, and see amazing photos.

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Flexible robot withstands snow, being run over by car [VIDEO]

Flexible Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGV) are nothing new, but this is one of the first to operate successfully untethered outside a laboratory environment. Is this robot cute or creepy?  You decide.

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Warrants for UAVs?

Along with 6 other states, California is considering mandating warrants for police surveillance by Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV).  Exceptions include police drone“fires, hostage crises, chases, and search and rescue.”

What about crowd control? Policemen once told me that this was the number one application for which they wanted UAVs. Observing a demonstration (especially if it’s legal) hardly meets the “urgent” and “emergency” criteria that describes the above exceptions.  Will police need to get a warrant for every protest?

Of course, there is an issue of whether police should be using UAVs for crowd control.  I was at a festival in Utah recently, in which thousands of people gathered at a federal park in Utah. All day long we were buzzed by low-flying airplanes and helicopters.  This generated rampant paranoia among festival goers, contributing to the circulation of ever more fantastic rumors. Could UAVs escalate an otherwise peaceful situation?

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A forest ranger informed me that the planes were owned by local rich folks who just wanted to take a peek at our large gathering.  There was no aerial police presence.

This raises another issue. Will police be more limited in UAV use than private citizens? If police need a warrant for using UAVs, could they sidestep their legal limitations by outsourcing this activity to private sources?  Something like this is already going on in more conventional circumstances.

To read about the proposed California law and similar restrictions in other states, read this detailed article in CNET.  If you really want an even greater in-depth look at this issue, check out the ACLU ‘s “Protecting Privacy From Aerial Surveillance: Recommendations for Government Use of Drone Aircraft.”

Counter IED training & Mobile Devices

C-IED & Mobile devicesWhen I researched this article about Counter Improvised Explosive Devices (C-IED) training, I couldn’t help thinking about communities near Tijuana in which the the homes are built out of discarded garage doors.  Garage doors aren’t the first thing anyone thinks of when building a house, but the people near the border didn’t have building materials.  So, they looked around and found what was available: discarded garage doors.

Similarly, the military has a problem: training.  As the land wars wind down in Asia (sort of), training domestically becomes more important.  Simultaneously, training budgets are being squeezed. Future operational goals are unpredictable, so training for diverse scenarios is necessary. Live training is expensive, so more has to be done with less.  Rapid technological change means rapid change in doctrine and tactics. It is important that feedback from ongoing missions be incorporated as soon as possible into training.

Just like the folks in Tijuana, the military looked around for available materials to solve their problems.  What they found were mobile devices.  Just like garage doors are not normally associated as the basic building materials for houses, nobody in boot camp ever told a soldier that their best friend is their smart phone.

So far, mobile devices have proven to be a pretty good fit. Mobile devices are excellent platforms for virtual programs, videos, interactive simulation systems, and smart books. Familiarity with specialized military apps allows the soldier to seamlessly transition to operations in which mobile devices are used as lightweight, mobile repositories for doctrinal manuals, as well as maintenance & technical manuals. They can even be used for educational games (in the past soldiers learned to identify soviet aircraft from specially designed playing cards).

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Their single most important quality of mobile devices is that they are dynamic.  No more paper manuals or books that are outdated by the time they are printed. Mobile devices can be updated instantly.

The embrace of mobile devices for training reflects a subtle, but meaningful change. The old model of attending a class where a teacher pours knowledge into a soldier’s empty heads is fading.  Instead, the soldier is trained to learn.  He is given personal responsibility for his education and he is expected to be disciplined about continuously improving his skill sets. He will carry this self-motivated attitude into the field, where he will need to constantly refresh his knowledge. The 24/7, anywhere, anytime nature of mobile devices fits this outlook perfectly.

The old formula to deal with the ever increasing burden of training soldiers was “train the trainer.” The new model may be described as “equip the learner.”

These trends are reflected in counter IED training. Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) is tasked with countering the “number one killer of Soldiers on the current battlefields worldwide.”  As they state on their training webpage, “Because the IED threat is constantly changing, the counter-IED fight is dynamic, and maintaining effectiveness remains an enduring requirement of training solution development.”  Just like the rest of the military, JIEDDO has embraced mobile devices as a solution for the need of continuous training.

For the purposes of C-IED training, JIEDDO’s Instructional Technology Development Team (ITDT) developed what it describes as “Digital Learning Content products.”  It is telling that these “products” support several types of learning: institutional, operational, and self-development.  Just offering these options conveys an important message; a warfighter’s training never ceases.

Through its Joint Center of Excellence, (JCOE), JIEDDO has a small team of personnel located in Afghanistan conducting an exhaustive lessons-learned program.   Brigade and regimental combat team staffs are debriefed at 90-day, mid-tour, and post-deployment milestones.  Training is updated with relevant information.

Let’s formulate a hypothetical example in which updated information could be critical. The enemy favors planting IEDs on roads a military vehicle has previously used. Currently, warfighters use a map application on their mobile devices to avoid routes that have been already traveled.  Suppose the enemy wises up to this tactic? Considering the flexibility and ingenuity they have shown in the past, this is certainly possible. A sudden switch in tactics could make the most-used road the safest one. Thanks to mobile devices, a warfighter can be informed of this life-saving information in real time.

In keeping with the military’s aversion to committing to any specific hardware, these Digital Learning Content products are available on multiple platforms. The Digital Learning Content products described above were deliberately designed to function within a “Bring Your Own Device (BYOD)” environment.

However, as the distinction between training and deployment becomes blurred, the military cannot ignore basic hardware issues.  If mobile devices are used for field training (and communication, situational awareness, and other purposes), how secure is it?  Is the information on it secure if a soldier is captured with his mobile device?   Is a password log-in good enough protection?   Is there a software solution that can thoroughly wipe the hard drive if the wrong key combination is pressed?   Or does it require a physical anti-tamper device that melts the whole thing down?  If it does have wireless and/or Bluetooth, how do you make it hack/virus/malware proof?

The military has focused on creating applications, specifically to avoid committing to one hardware device. Obviously, this is completely impractical for devices carried in theater.  Logistics for heterogeneous platforms would be a nightmare.

Which brings us to the critical issue of ruggedness. Commercial mobile devices, such as smartphones, are notoriously fragile. Obviously, fully rugged devices are needed in theater. If training is designed to seamlessly blend from stateside to areas of operations, doesn’t it make sense to use the same mobile device? Rugged mobile devices for domestic training would decrease the amount of downtime due to equipment failure and breakage.

JIEDDO has made significant progress in incorporating mobile devices into their training, and adjusting their doctrine to meet contemporary needs.  Still, more needs to be done.

For more information on rugged mobile devices, contact Rob Culver, AMREL’s Director of Business Development – DoD Programs. He can be reached at (603) 325 3376 or robertc@amrel.com.

What military technology will disrupt future markets?

DB6_soldier_legRecently, someone asked a question on Quora about which military technology is more advanced than its commercial counterpart.  How would you have answered this question?  What military technology will disrupt future commercial markets? A modified form of my answer follows:

I think the question is based on a premise that may be outdated. Traditionally, the military has funded pioneering Research & Development (R&D). Eventually, these technological breakthroughs would be transferred to the civilian market. The Internet and personal computers are examples of this paradigm.

However, the explosive growth of civilian electronics has changed all that. The civilian market is way bigger, much more dynamic, and often more advanced than the military one.

During Desert Storm, officers noticed that combat personnel were ignoring government-issued electronic equipment, and bringing items bought on the civilian market into front-line combat areas. They also noticed that the consumer items were frequently superior to the military ones. An example that is often given is SIGINT troops using RadioShack scanners to gather intelligence on digital data, because their government collectors were designed for old-fashion analog signals. An ex-Marine told me that, during the 90s, he and his buddies bought their own walkie-talkies, because the government issued ones had overly large and clumsy batteries.

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This change in technological development is an especially serious problem for the American military, which relies on a hi-tech edge to maintain superiority. Why spend a fortune developing something when the enemy can buy the same or superior product at a local store?

The Department of Defense is desperately trying to adapt to this new situation. R&D is much more limited, and there is a greater emphasis on purchasing Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS) products.  However, this transition has not been without is challenges (See COTS – the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly).

However, there are still some items used by the military that I have not seen in civilian markets, and that may be ripe for commercial use:

  1. Renewable energy solutions.  The American military, the largest user of oil in the world, has enthusiastically embraced renewable energy as a cost-saving measure and for logistical reasons. At tradeshows, I have seen “rucksack” solar panels, i.e. soft ones that roll up in a backpack. I have never seen anything like them in the camping stores I frequent. Some of the military’s mobile renewable energy solutions would be great for off-grid and poor communities.
  2. Rugged computers. These are tough computers that can withstand harsh, environmental conditions.  VDC Research determined that even though these computers initially cost more than conventional commercial models, they actually save money in the long run, because of fewer repairs, less downtime, and less lost data. Police officers, warehouse workers, oil workers, outdoorsmen, miners, farmers, field researchers, and others would benefit from using rugged computers. I recently talked to a geophysicist who dragged a rugged computer through miles of a wet underground cave system, and was thrilled with its reliability. Sadly, many are unaware of rugged computers’ financial and practical advantages. In theory, a clever entrepreneur, with very little start-up costs, could identify a needy market niche, and make money selling rugged computers to them.  To learn more about rugged computers, visit computers.amrel.com
  3. Robotics. I do not know which is the primary driving force in robotic development, civilian or military. I do know that the military is doing amazing things, especially through DARPA.  I would not be surprised to see some of the military’s pioneering work on autonomy used for self-driving cars and robots that assist the elderly or disabled.

What do you think?

Tell us about the next big military-to-civilian tech transfer by emailing editor@amrel.com