RCO joins SOCOM in early assessments of new or emerging technology from defense industry, tech startups and academia.
by Ms. Nancy Jones-Bonbrest
On a rainy afternoon in March, technology developers gathered to show their latest position, navigation and timing (PNT) solutions. There were no traditional marketing brochures, trade show booths or giveaway trinkets. Instead, these developers—from big industry, tech startups and academia alike—were there to demonstrate emerging capabilities and get feedback directly from the operators who may one day use the technology on the battlefield if their GPS is ever jammed, tricked or dropped.
To carry out the event, organizers found a former Indiana state hospital, now a National Guard base with a 1,000-acre urban training complex that developers could use to assess their PNT technologies. They trekked through concrete subterranean tunnels, filled with several inches of water, weaving for 1.5 miles under structures that were both abandoned and still in use. They drove across rocky terrain, on paved roads with traffic circles and overpasses, and through mock villages. They navigated their way on foot through an old prison complex, a collapsed parking garage and a five-story hospital. A variety of scenarios brought the technology to life, providing the next step in assessing it beyond a PowerPoint presentation or white paper.
Dubbed a technical experimentation, this event was one of several that occur throughout the year to rapidly assess the technical maturity and possible use of new or emerging technology based on specifically identified areas of need. While technical experimentations are business as usual and have been for more than a decade at the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), for the Army it marked a pivotal first, with its Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO) leveraging the event to lead the PNT excursion. This is just one of many avenues the Army is looking at through the eyes of SOCOM to gain insight into streamlining acquisition processes. (For more on the SOCOM acquisition model, see “Aggressive. Innovative. Fast.”)
“The Army participated in these events in the past as assessors or evaluators, but this is the first that we know of where we were able to lead a portion of the event, in this case PNT,” said Rob Monto, director of RCO’s Emerging Technologies Office. “SOCOM took a leap of faith and partnered with us because it was a technology they were interested in as well. So it set up this unique collaboration that was beneficial for both, and we hope will lead to future joint efforts.”
Among the more than 200 buildings, abandoned cars and rubble that make up the Muscatatuck Urban Training Center in Butlerville, Indiana, the Army RCO led the PNT portion of SOCOM’s Technical Experimentation 18-2, which took place March 26-29. While the RCO evaluated PNT technologies, the SOCOM event was much larger, evaluating such things as optics, biometrics, advanced sniper rifles and cognitive enhancement as well.
The technical experimentations bring together the users, the program offices and the technology developers to evaluate promising new capabilities in a flexible, unclassified, operational environment. These events, which SOCOM holds a few times each year, allow for detailed user feedback and discovery of new or emerging technologies while also promoting information exchange and risk reduction.
“I talk about this three-legged stool, where, if you don’t have all three players involved, you’re going to have some level of disappointment,” said Dan Bernard, the SOCOM acquisition, technology and logistics lead for the technical experimentations. “The technology developers are essentially showing their kit to the user and the program offices at the same time. We’re looking at early development. It does no good to do this with finished products. That’s just shopping.”
‘LOW THRESHOLD OF ENTRY’
Falling under the Special Operations Forces Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Center, the technical experimentation events take place at military sites across the country. They focus on various technology areas of need, identified by the SOCOM service components and program offices. Having identified a need, SOCOM posts a request for information (RFI) for the experimentation event on the Federal Business Opportunities website. Anyone interested in participating simply responds to the RFI. After the event, the participating companies receive detailed assessments of how their technologies performed.
“We treat everyone like they are our customers and we want everybody to go home satisfied, feeling like they got something out of it,” said Bernard. “We’re doing this early in the development process. So if there’s a company pursuing a technology and they get this sound bite from an operator—that can really help to shape their thinking.
“Feedback could be, ‘It needs to be lighter,’ or, ‘This is great, but if I have to carry that, then something has to come out of my rucksack,’” he explained. “That’s news to a lot of people. If you are a tech developer, you’re thinking, ‘This is a cool thing, and I don’t understand why they don’t want to carry it.’ But they have to understand that it is going to have to be good enough to replace something [Soldiers] are already carrying.”
This feedback, combined with the three-pronged approach of having the program offices, users and developers working together in one place at the same time, is what attracted the Army RCO to participate, Monto said. “This is a low threshold of entry, where you have very small tech companies standing shoulder to shoulder with traditional defense companies, and you can assess the technology in an operational environment with the actual users,” he said. “Being able to participate in this SOCOM-led event meant the Army could determine if the capabilities were tangible now, while also giving us a better understanding of what technologies are out there.”
The SOCOM technical experimentation provided the ideal venue to host an initial RCO “burn-off” event. Both the SOCOM event and RCO burn-offs emphasize the value of bringing together commercial capabilities or emerging technologies in an operational demonstration to size them up against a set of criteria with a very low barrier to entry and without the pressure of a formal test. By being able to use the SOCOM event, the RCO can better prepare for its first solo burn-off, expected later this year.
‘DOES SOMEBODY … WANT TO USE IT?’
Technologies demonstrated during the PNT portion of the technical experimentation included radio-frequency range finding, atomic clock systems and inertial navigation unit technology. Each presented innovative ways to overcome jamming, which occurs when an adversary overpowers signals from GPS satellites so that receivers in certain areas cannot operate, and spoofing, or tricking a GPS receiver into calculating a false position.
In the driving rain at Muscatatuck, mounted operators attempted to keep their vehicles on course without GPS while moving through various scenarios and settings. The different scenarios helped the Army measure technology performance and run comparisons, since one solution might do well driving around a planned course but drop in performance on a rough patch of road or an unplanned detour. Similarly, while a dismounted system could perform well for Soldiers climbing the stairs of a parking garage, it might not do as well within an enclosed concrete tunnel. Yet for a Soldier using the technology, all situations are relevant.
To track the results, the RCO provided a GPS logger that recorded the ground-truth data to compare against the log files of the demonstrated systems. Additionally, they took distance and location measurements for the buildings and tunnels where GPS was not available.
In all, nine developers participated in the PNT portion of the technical experimentation at Muscatatuck. They demonstrated technology that included, for example, a mounted device with a PNT-reliant system that can operate despite GPS disruption by using inertial measurement units and precision timing technology. The device combines PNT functions typically achieved through multiple independent systems.
Another company demonstrated a dismounted system that uses an inertial navigation unit that users wear on the foot. It communicates with a smartphone via Bluetooth and uses robust algorithms to communicate during failures and dropouts.
A third showed how three antennas prepositioned on the rooftops of nearby buildings provided triangulation to enable radio-frequency ranging for both mounted and dismounted operators.
The Georgia Tech Research Institute assisted in developing the various demonstration plans and provided quantitative analysis of the data collected. “At an event like this, you get two things. On one side, you get the quantitative analysis that we are doing, and that answers, does this system really work? Does it actually provide position with some reasonable amount of accuracy?” said James Perkins, principal research scientist with the institute. “But I think the other side you get is the operational side: So, does somebody who is a boots-on-the-ground Soldier actually want to use it? Seeing the operational perspective and seeing what real operators think about a system is important early in the development.”
As the RCO uses different burn-off events throughout the year to determine if a new technology can be used to meet a specific need, it has gained important experience from the Muscatatuck event and anticipates partnering again with SOCOM.
For industry, the burn-offs provide a chance to showcase capabilities and receive formal and informal feedback. For the Army, they yield a greater awareness of what promising new technology is available now and how it performs under different conditions. The PNT project manager and the Army Futures Command’s cross-functional team also participated at Muscatatuck to facilitate potential future capability efforts, which can help build unity of effort to enable faster, more streamlined modernization efforts.
“Bringing the Soldier and developer together early on allows the Army to speed up the requirement development process,” said Benjamin Pinx, product director in the Emerging Capabilities Office of the Project Manager for PNT. “During this particular event, we received immediate feedback from our dismounted operators and learned a lot. What we learn in these early experiments will influence how the Army continues to modernize the force and enable faster development and fielding of enhanced PNT capabilities for Army platforms and the Soldier.”
“This event allowed vendors to demonstrate both dismounted and mounted PNT capabilities our warfighters need today to fight and win against near-peer threats in an electromagnetic-warfare contested environment,” said Lt. Col. Brian Mack, the emerging technologies coordinator for the Army network cross-functional team. “Equally as important, it demonstrated a commitment of Army modernization change agents like the Rapid Capabilities Office, the Army’s Network Cross-Functional Team and the Army’s Position, Navigation and Timing Cross-Functional Team to come together, collaborate, team and solve some of our most challenging capability gaps facing the warfighter.”
For more information on the technical experimentation events, go to http://www.socom.mil/sof-atl/pages/technical-experimentation.aspx. For more information on the Army RCO or its Emerging Technologies Office, go to http://rapidcapabilitiesoffice.army.mil/ or http://rapidcapabilitiesoffice.army.mil/eto/.
NANCY JONES-BONBREST is a staff writer for Data Systems Analysts Inc., providing contract support to the Army Rapid Capabilities Office. She holds a B.S. in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park. She has covered Army modernization for several years, including multiple training and testing events.