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Archive for Monday, March 29, 2004

Pentagon orders high-tech tools

Inventions allow soldiers to collaborate, pinpoint fire

March 29, 2004

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— The Pentagon is rushing into service in Iraq a pair of technologies developed under its advanced research arm: a Humvee-mounted sensor for pinpointing hostile gunfire and a "command post of the future" designed to cut down on combat leaders' travel and streamline decision-making.

The tools come courtesy of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is known mostly for its imaginative, over-the-horizon work. Current DARPA projects include underwater holograms that disguise submarines and artificial human "tissue" for testing vaccines against biological and chemical weapons.

But urgent war zone needs have prompted the Pentagon agency to get to soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan inventions ranging from hand-held computerized language translators to thousands of pen-sized water purifiers.

Warning system

The sniper detector, named "Boomerang" and developed by BBN Technologies Inc. of Cambridge, Mass., is all about diluting the element of surprise in urban ambushes.

Sensors atop an aluminum pole on the back of a Humvee pick up supersonic shockwaves to give an approximate location of gunfire, and soundwaves measured from the muzzle blast narrow it some more.

A cigarette box-sized display on the dashboard or windshield then shows the findings. "Incoming, 5 o'clock," says a speaker inside the box.

Assailants in urban Iraq are often inexperienced, missing on the first shot, said Karen Wood, who supervised development of "Boomerang" in just two months. They also tend to be armed with AK-47s rather than more accurate rifles, giving soldiers time to return fire or get out of harm's way.

DARPA tested the Boomerang in December at the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory in Quantico, Va. The Marines and Army in Iraq then volunteered to take 50, becoming the first to try them in battle.

DARPA's goal is to lower the cost of a sniper detector from $10,000 to $3,000 and to link them in a network that lets soldiers throughout Baghdad know sniper whereabouts. And while hostile gunfire doesn't pose near the lethal threat to U.S. troops as craftily rigged roadside bombs, every little bit helps.

"Is a 20 percent solution better than nothing?" Wood said. "If it saves lives, a partial solution is better than nothing."

Improving communication

New computer systems designed to streamline the command bureaucracy -- letting senior officers collaborate in real time with visual tools -- will get tested in the field by the 1st Cavalry Division, which will take 50 such computer banks to Iraq in about a month. Half will go in the division's Baghdad headquarters while the rest are sprinkled at eight command posts in the area. All will be connected by one overarching wireless network.

Each bank of computers has three screens: one for the user's own work, one for 3-D simulated battlefields and a third to peer into what's happening on other systems throughout the city. Commanders also will be able to talk to each other using voice over Internet technology.

The network is designed to sharply reduce the need for commanders to crisscross the city for meetings while hastening the flow of information. Instead of sending an e-mail request, for example, they can simply drop in on each other's computers for data they need.

"Right now we have to bring everyone to the same place to have a meeting, and Baghdad is a dangerous place," said Ryan Paterson, project manager of DARPA's "Command Post of the Future," which is being developed by Maya Viz LLC of Pittsburgh and three other companies.

DARPA had been working with a few generals since 1999 but had no takers until wartime, said Steve Roth, Maya Viz's chief executive officer. "It was limping along on pennies," he said.

Then, Maj. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the 1st Cav commander, invited him to Fort Hood, Texas, for a demonstration in October.

Chiarelli immediately agreed to test it in Iraq.

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