Visit AMREL at Unmanned Systems 2015

auvsi 2015.jpg 3Among the products on display will be the ROCKY RS11, the lightest, thinnest, rugged laptop in the world. Weighing only 5.5 lbs and just an inch thick, it’s a super-strong laptop that you don’t need to be super-strong to carry.

An onsite demonstration will pair AMREL computing platforms with Silvus’ Teamster MIMO radios to form a comprehensive mesh network that integrates a mix of UAVs, UGVs, sensors, and other IP-enabled devices.

 To learn more about AMREL unmanned solutions, click here.



DARPA’s self-guided bullets [VIDEO]

Every once in a while, we learn of a new technology that’s scary. This is one of those times.

Very few people in the current military are as respected or as well trained as the sniper. Along with unmanned systems and Special Forces, snipers have come to embody the modern face of war.

Snipers have a long history. Their skillset has continually transformed as weapon technology itself has been constantly upgraded. For example, once upon a time, snipers were expected to be proficient in making their own ammunition. Familiarity with the idiosyncrasies of their particular ordinance was vital to their ability to successfully make a long shot. Obviously, standardization and good quality control has rendered this particular talent obsolete.

Snipers are expected to be able mentally calculate wind direction, elevation, and other factors that affect the trajectory of a bullet. Ballistic computers have downgraded the importance of these mental gymnastics, but many snipers still learn the necessary mathematics. Like the ballistic computer, a self-calibrating smart scope also threatens to render certain sniper skills archaic.

But all these technological advances pale in comparison with DARPA’s self-guided bullets. Everybody’s favorite mad scientists are running an Extreme Accuracy Tasked Ordnance (EXACTO) program. In other words, a self-steering bullet for difficult, long-distance shots.

“True to DARPA’s mission, EXACTO has demonstrated what was once thought impossible: the continuous guidance of a small-caliber bullet to target,” said Jerome Dunn, DARPA program manager.

Dunn went on to describe a live-fire demonstration that utilized a standard rifle.  “… EXACTO is able to hit moving and evading targets with extreme accuracy at sniper ranges unachievable with traditional rounds. Fitting EXACTO’s guidance capabilities into a small .50-caliber size is a major breakthrough and opens the door to what could be possible in future guided projectiles across all calibers.”

As demonstrated by the video below, an EXACTO bullet can change direction in mid-flight. How is this accomplished? One source states that:

“Each ‘self-guided bullet’ is around 4 inches in length.  At the tip lies an optical sensor that can detect a laser beam being shone on a far-off target. Actuators inside the bullet gather information from the bullet’s sensor allowing them to steer using tiny fins to guide the bullet accurately to its intended target. The bullet can self-correct its navigational path 30 times a second, all while flying more than twice the speed of sound!”

Bear in mind that the above quote was taken from an unconfirmed source. Fins on a rifled bullet? Could a laser-guided projectile adjust for fog and dust?  No one knows how DARPA is performing this magic trick and they are not talking.

What’s so scary about a self-guided bullet? Not the fact that people will be able to shoot around corners. Heck, that’s just one of the myriad ways a modern combatant can get killed. Also, there’s a real possibility that self-guided bullets will reduce collateral damage. Imagine a Predator UAV firing self-guided .50 caliber bullets instead of Hellfire missiles. The greater accuracy may mean a smaller impact area and consequently fewer casualties.

What’s so scary about the self-guided bullet is that, as the video demonstrates below, an untrained novice hit a long-range target the first time he used this technology. Snipers will no longer constitute a rarefied elite with difficult-to-learn skills. Virtually anyone will now be able to use ordinary rifles to hit targets a mile away.

That’s scary.

WIN-T sees the light of day

After more than a decade of hit-and-miss and one-step-forward/two-steps-backward development, the CS-13 (Capability Set 13)  is finally being deployed with combat troops.

CS-13 includes:

  • Nett Warrior (squad leader networking)
  • Win-T (Warfighter Information Network-Tactical Increment 2)
  • BFT 2 (Blue Force Tracking 2)
  • Company Command Post
  • Tactical radios such as AN/PRC-117G and Rifleman Radio
  • Combat smart phones

Even allowing for the usual mess of confusing acronyms, these communication programs have been exceptionally difficult to track. In response to rapidly changing technology, end-user feedback, as well as new requirements, they have undergone constant transformation. Nett Warrior alone has gone through more changes than a nervous teenage girl preparing for a date.

Strategy page has a detailed look at this complex and multilayered communications initiative. Their article is reprinted in full below:

After two years of testing the U.S. Army is putting its new communications system; Win-T (Win-T Increment 2) into service with combat troops. This comes after lots of development and testing. Back in 2013 four combat brigades were equipped with CS-13 (Capability Set 13), which includes Win-T, for testing under realistic conditions. That resulted in several changes to the hardware and software and final approval of the system. Now units headed for combat are being equipped. The first two units to receive Win-T are Stryker brigades in Texas and Washington State.

CS-13 consists of several different technologies the army has been developing since the 1990s. Some of these items have already been in combat. CS-13 includes Nett Warrior (an effort to get networking down to the squad leader), Win-T (Warfighter Information Network-Tactical Increment 2, a battlefield Internet), BFT 2 (Blue Force Tracking 2 for tracking troop location in real time), Company Command Post (giving company commanders more data), and tactical radios like AN/PRC-117G, Rifleman Radio, and combat smart phones. CS 13 is the result of over a decade of effort to create better battlefield communications, including a combat version of the Internet. The final selection took between 2011 and 2013 as 115 systems were tested by troops and those found wanting (most of them) dropped.

WIN-T was designed to allow troops to simultaneously exchange text, data, video, and voice data using a new generation of radios. Personal computers and smart phones (including both off-the-shelf and “ruggedized” military models) can hook into WIN-T and use the future improved communications and networking. In effect it is wi-fi for a combat zone that provides Internet-like capabilities to troops who are under fire.

One of the new devices that have been in action the longest have gone through several generations of upgrades. Thus JBC-P (Joint-Battle Command Platform) is the latest version of BFT and has several improvements. The most welcome improvement was much faster (almost instantaneous) updates of information. The satellite signals are now encrypted and work no matter the weather, temperature of distance. While every vehicle is equipped with one of these devices, Individual troops on the ground now have a smartphone type BFT device that allows them to chat and quickly shows on the display the location of nearby JBC-P users and has a zoom capability similar to Google Earth. Troops can quickly update enemy locations, bombs or otherwise dangerous areas. These smartphones are typically worn on the forearm for easy use in combat. The purpose of all these improvements is to enable troops arriving (by land or air) in an area where contact with the enemy is expected to immediately go into action knowing where everyone (on foot or in vehicles) is and where they are moving to.

Company Command Post gives a company commander the ability to quickly send and receive (and sort out) text, voice, and data with his troops (three platoons consisting of nine squads and special teams of snipers and machine-guns). This provides company commanders, using a laptop and other gear that can be carried while on foot, the same kind of command post capabilities previously restricted to battalion, brigade, and larger headquarters.

The key radios in CS 13 are the AN/PRC-117G, the AN/PRC-154, and the combat smart phone. AN/PRC-117G is a 5.45 kg (12 pound) radio that can be carried or installed in vehicles. About a third of its weight is the battery. It has a maximum output of 20 watts and handles FM, UHF, and VHF signals, including satellite based communications. On the ground max range is 20 kilometers (depending on hills and the antenna used). The U.S. has been using the AN/PRC-117 since the late 1990s, as an interim radio, and found it a solid piece of equipment. The AN/PRC-117 is based on a commercial design (the Falcon series) that several foreign armed forces and many civilian operations use. The AN/PRC-117 has been regularly upgraded in that time (going from version A to the current G). AN/PRC-154 (or RR for Rifleman Radio) are lightweight (1 kg/2.2 pound) voice/data radios for individual infantrymen. RR includes GPS and a battery good for over ten hours of use. The RR has been undergoing tests since 2010. For most of 2012, U.S. Army Rangers have been using them in Afghanistan. By itself, the two watt RR has a range of up to two kilometers. But it can also automatically form a mesh network, where all RRs within range of each other can pass on voice or data information. During the field tests this was done to a range of up to 50 kilometers. The RR can also make use of an aerostat, UAV, or aircraft overhead carrying a RR to act as a communications booster (to other RRs or other networks). The mesh network enables troops to sometimes eliminate carrying a longer range (and heavier) AN/PRC-117 for the platoon leader. The combat smart phone is a ruggedized Android smart phone, equipped to handle military communications via the mesh network.

CS-13 provides capabilities that, before September 11, 2001, where not expected until the 2020s. But because of all the American troops seeing combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, there were opportunities to try out new equipment under combat conditions, and this accelerated the development process.


F-35 and Defense’s Biggest Problem

Nothing illustrates the problems of Defense procurement better than the troubled program of the F-35.  Every year the 5th generation combat plane seems to grow more expensive, less capable, and more delayed in schedule.

What both American critics and proponents of the F-35 often forget is that it’s a multinational project. The US strategy is to spread the cost of this advanced plane among its allies.

One ally invested in the F-35 is Israel. I was curious what its Defense establishment thought of this plane. While not immune to political shenanigans, Israel’s military likes to thinks of itself as ruthlessly practical. Could they cut through the agenda-driven arguments that dog the F-35 in America?

A Times of Israel article details the debate within Israel about the F-35.  Some of the criticism will sound familiar to American military analysts.

The F-35:

The expense criticism is somewhat ironic, since US aid will pay for most of the F-35s’ cost. Still, some Israelis think the aid money could be better spent.

One difference between American and Israeli commentators is that the latter do not worship at the altar of the new and more readily embrace the virtues of older, more established systems. As quoted in the Times of Israel, Yiftah Shapir, of the Middle East Military Balance Project, said:

“Take the army we had in 1985 – the F-15 and F-16 A and B; the Merkava Mark I and II, and all the rest – and ask yourself whether the IDF,” using those weapons, “could defend Israel today against its enemies,”

His answer is an unhesitating yes. Not every technological leap is one Israel is forced to take, he said.

While some in America have also argued that upgrading older fighters would be a better use of resources, it is hard to imagine any of our military analysts blithely dismissing the “latest and greatest.” For example, one of the F-35 strongest critics is Moshe Arens, former Defense minister and a trained aeronautical engineer. He boasted that Vietnam War-era armored personnel carriers were effective in the latest Gaza incursions. When was the last time you heard an American military leader argue that we do not need to invest in new technology?

The Israeli Air Force (IAF) point man for the F-35 is “Lt. Col. B” (Israeli military and intelligence leaders are often granted anonymity in the media). He counters Arens’ arguments with dire predictions of declining Israeli air superiority. Furthermore the comparisons of the early models of the F-35s with the latest versions of the F-16s and F-15s are inappropriate. Rather, “…the first model of the F-35 should be compared to the F-16’s first model and not the plane that has been steadily improved for the past 35 years.”

“Lt. Col. B” continued:

“The question,” he said, “is where to place the seam between the present and the future” – in other words, when does it no longer pay to continue to upgrade the existing platform…”

“Lt. Col. B” bolstered his arguments with a detailed historical perspective. Virtually, all new jet fighter purchases were opposed by the IAF at the time.

Some advocate abandoning the F-35 and waiting for unmanned fighters to become practical. While it is possible that the F-35 will be the last manned combat aircraft, waiting for unmanned fighters is not a practical strategy. Granted, the US Navy has done amazing things with Unmanned Combat Aircraft Vehicles (UCAV), such as carrier landings and aerial refueling. However, basic problems remain. UCAVs crash more often than their manned counterparts, and remote operators hate the poor visibility. In one famous incident an operator flew a UCAV upside down without realizing it.

Since Russia’s announcement of the sale of S-300 Integrated Aircraft Defense Systems to Iran, F-35 advocates have become embolden. According to “Lt. Col. B,” the problem with operating in the depths of enemy territory is not lack of fuel, but inadequate intelligence. The pilot of an F-35 has vastly superior situational awareness than his counterpart in the F-16. This difference is literally a matter of life and death.

Those of you who have been following the sale of the S-300 to Iran may be a little confused by the last paragraph. Depending on who you listen to, the S-300 sale is game changing or a nuisance that can be overcome. Indeed, even without the F-35, Israel has already conducted training exercises against the S-300. Does the S-300 sale strengthen the case for F-35 acquisition or not? This last question depresses me, because I cannot get a good objective answer.

Defense procurement in Israel suffers the same limitations as its American counterpart. For example, Moshe Arens, who was mentioned earlier, is an informed expert on Israeli defense issues. However, he has been waging a decades’ long campaign to restore Israel’s ability to build its own homegrown jets. No matter how legitimate are his criticisms about the F-35, it is entirely possible that no non-Israeli jet would ever satisfy him.

This is the central problem in both American and Israeli Defense procurement. Competent people of good will are involved, but everybody is driven by their own personal agendas. It is impossible to get an unbiased neutral judgment.

The American solution is to ignore the difference of opinion, and try to satisfy everyone. Politicians can’t decide what areas of the world constitute core American interests? Fine, we need the capability to project power everywhere simultaneously. The Pentagon can’t figure out what kind of war we will fight? We will simply prepare for every kind of war. No one really knows what a 5th generational fighter should be? Great, we’ll simply build a plane that is all things to all people.

Obviously, such a policy is not sustainable, not mention ruinously expensive. I do not know what the solution is. I dread that 20 years from now, as commentators examine the latest over-budget weapon system, the F-35 program will look like a model of efficiency and economy.

AMREL at MCB Camp Pendleton

AMREL will be displaying its latest and greatest at MCB Camp Pendleton on Tactical & Tech Day, Wednesday,  April 22, 2015. We will be showcasing our line of super-slim, ultra-rugged laptops, handhelds, and tablets.

Special sneak peak! Come and get a look at some of our special products before they’re released to the market, including:

  • AT80 Rugged Android Tablet
  • DS11, a tablet so thin you won’t believe it’s fully rugged
  • Many others

Also, on hand will be the RS11 and the RV11, the world’s thinnest, rugged laptops with 13.3″ and 15.6″ displays, respectively. And you won’t want to miss our Android APEX AH53 handheld, so tough it has an IP67 rating.

Learn more about our rugged mobile computing solutions at:

Disasters are good for unmanned systems [VIDEOS]

Suppliers of military unmanned systems are constantly on look out for possible civilian applications. One promising civilian application is their use in disaster response. Unmanned Ground Vehicles crawl through the rubble of destroyed buildings looking for survivors. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and Unmanned Underwater Vehicles inspect buildings, bridges, wharfs, and other structures for damage and structural integrity. Unmanned systems used in response to disasters are referred to as “Search-And Rescue” (SAR) or “Urban Search and Rescue” (USAR).

Essentially, USAR robots act as the eyes and ears in environments that that are too difficult or too dangerous for humans to go. Preserving the safety of human rescuers is not a trivial concern. According to Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR), 135 rescuers died in rescue operations in response to a Mexico City earthquake.

Unmanned systems operating in irradiated areas of a nuclear accident is the classic example of a dangerous and hard-to-reach environment. Recently, the Japanese utility TEPCO sent a 2-foot long, snake-shaped robot into severely radioactive areas of the Fukushima reactor to collect temperature and radiation data. The video images created by this robot are the first we have seen of the damaged containment chamber. The information collected by this and other unmanned systems are expected to be critical in removing radioactive debris. For more information on the role of unmanned systems in the Fukushima disaster, see this blog’s post, Where are the Japanese robots?

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The first known use of USAR robots was in response to the 9/11 bombing of the World Trade Center. Personnel from Foster-Miller, iRobot, University of South Florida, NAVSEA SPAWAR, DARPA, CRASAR operated or contributed upwards to 17 unmanned systems. This disaster highlighted the potential of USAR unmanned systems as well as the need for further development. Read more about the use of robots at the World Trade Center here.

Since then, USAR robots have been used over dozens of times, as indicated by the following table.



All USAR unmanned systems (ground, aerial, and marine) are remotely operated. Autonomous systems are not used due to real-time needs. Operators had expected that mobility and hardware capabilities would present the biggest challenges. Instead, Human-Robot Interactions and sensor limitations have been the leading problems.

This short video gives an excellent introduction to USAR robots as well as the CRASAR’s role in deploying them.

The voice you hear in the above video is Professor Dr. Robin Murphy, Director of CRASAR. She has been indefatigable in promoting USAR. Below is an interview with her discussing USAR unmanned systems and their role following 9/11.

Probably, the biggest single limitation to widespread deployment of USAR robots is money. Institutions are willing to invest in machines that replace expensive workers. They are more reluctant to expend resources on costly hardened systems that may be used rarely or never at all. In the above referenced blog post on the Fukushima disaster, I concluded that financial concerns were the major factors in the lack of an unmanned system response.

USAR robots save lives and hold the promise to limit the monetary consequences of disasters. Governments and other institutions should be heavily investing in them. It remains to be seen if the deadly combination of short-sighted economic concerns and wishful thinking can be overcome, so the full potential of USAR robots can be realized.

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Ground Combat Vehicle [VIDEO]

The United States relies on its technological edge for military superiority. The problem with that strategy is that eventually everyone gets their hands on the latest technological advance.

The Shi’ite militias in Iraq do not have their hands on the latest, but they did get a hold of a UGV.  Obviously not fans of science fiction (otherwise they would know that armed robots always turn on their human masters), they went ahead and put a gun on this lumbering, exposed platform. War on the Rocks is less than impressed with this device, citing deficiencies in optics, wheels, and armor (the latter being nonexistent).

The Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV) doesn’t look particularly fearsome. It’s slow, clumsy, vulnerable, and looks like it’s dependent on line-of-sight for control. The Operator Control Unit (OCU) is a fragile looking commercial tablet, not the usual AMREL-made rugged OCU, which was a common sight in the Iraqi theater.

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The militia does have the good sense to use a UGV for its intended purpose, i.e. IED detection. You can check the whole thing out in the video below. I recommend fast forwarding to the 2 minute mark, and turning the sound off, unless you understand Arabic (Farsi?) and are a fan of cheesy jihadist music

Unmanned Ant Vehicles [VIDEO]

Unmanned system designers are exploring bio-mimicry and hive intelligence. The video of “BionicANTs” below illustrates both trends.

Each individual mechanized ant uses control algorithms to cooperatively solve complex problems. Although they collectively perform a task, each individual ant engages in actions at a local level that are determined by autonomous decision making. Thus, they mimic real ants.

The ants have piezo-ceramic bending transducers in their legs’ actuators, which enables precise control and minimize the energy needed. Stereo cameras and floor sensors allow them to navigate their surroundings as well as identify objects that are to be manipulated. They communicate with a radio module that is located in their abdomen (the next time you are tempted to grouse about fitting a radio component into a small space, remember the challenges facing the designers of these ants).

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To build the bodies, the manufacturers used 3D printed plastic powder, which was melted layer by layer with a laser. 3D printing was also used to create the electric circuits.

The ants are also cute, in their own way. I especially like how they use their antennas to charge their batteries.

Lincoln, War, and Good Friday

On April 15, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.

The news hit the country liked a punch in the stomach. The pro-Union forces were still celebrating the end of the war. For weeks, Northerners gathered in the streets to drink, parade, and sing songs glorifying their victory.

What a victory it was! Not only had the Union had been preserved, but an entire race had been liberated. Americans could now proclaim themselves the “land of the free” without hypocrisy.

Furthermore, democracy itself had been vindicated. The principle of self-rule was still controversial and regarded as impractical by many. The persistence of the American republic was a stunning rebuke to those who mocked the government of the people. A Union defeat would have set back the cause of liberty for the entire world.

Union victory was also, it can be argued, the beginning of the American era. The Union army had been the largest in the world. The Confederate army had been the second largest.

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The American armies were the most technologically advanced of their time. Telegraphs, iron-clad, railroads, and even hot-air balloons were used extensively in the Civil War.

The old, aristocratic, empires might sneer at the provincial Americans, but they could no longer dismiss them as insignificant.  We were clearly a force to be reckoned with, and we knew it.

All these feelings – moral righteousness, martial pride, soaring patriotism, and triumphalism – were quashed with an assassin’s bullet. Everyone was shocked that the horrors of war were not over.

Lincoln was killed on Good Friday. Christians went to Easter services the following Sunday and meditated on themes of martyrdom and sacrifice. Jews observed Passover that Friday night and hailed Lincoln as the new Moses who had freed an entire people.

This month marks the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln assassination. As we observe the spring religious holidays, it would be wise to remember what our ancestors and so many of our veterans have painfully learned.  We do not decide what war’s ultimate price will be or when we will stop paying it. The sacrifices of war do not end with the last battle.

 Remember our veterans

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