Magazine article National Defense

Inside the Hatch: Coming Soon: Cockpits in Combat Trucks

Magazine article National Defense

Inside the Hatch: Coming Soon: Cockpits in Combat Trucks

Article excerpt

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Soldiers would like to control their vehicle-based technologies--sensors, communications, blue force tracking and weapons--from a single interface, just as civilians access multiple programs from their desktop computers.

The answer may come in the form of cockpit-like technology that could turn plain humvees into multimedia hubs. It also would allow soldiers to control sensors and weapons from the safety of their armored cabs.

But engineers caution that providing these technologies to ground vehicles is tough because most combat trucks have overcrowded cabins that are already cluttered with multiple monitors and processors. Vehicles also are laden with heavy armor, which limits the amount of weight a truck can safely carry.

An integrated cockpit-style setup aboard trucks would greatly benefit troops who rely heavily on sensors and robots, such as those in explosive ordnance disposal units, experts say. Those soldiers have been frustrated by the necessity of hopping from one monitor to the next in order to perform various tasks, including searching for bombs, controlling robots, staying aware of their surroundings, keeping tabs on enemy movement and communicating with friendly forces.

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Deployed explosive ordnance disposal units last year asked the Army's Rapid Equipping Force to help them integrate five of their oft-used systems into a single command-and-control center aboard one of their vehicles. They wanted to be able to view video feeds, drive two robots, monitor the battlefield and communicate via the blue force tracking system.

The Army attempted to take the video feeds and plug them into a single monitor and display them in a quad-screen layout. But that effort was deemed inadequate and not as functional as troops had wanted.

"You can't just wire things together--there's nothing common about any system, and that's the problem. You can't just plug it into a monitor and expect it all to work," says Greg Glaros, president of Synexxus Inc., an Arlington, Va.-based company that the Rapid Equipping Force approached to develop the integration concept.

The REF asked Synexxus to develop an architecture capable of accepting any current or future equipment, to include weapons, communications gear and robotics, and integrate the resulting information so that it could be used, manipulated, shared, networked and traversed inside a vehicle.

Within 96 days, the firm produced a prototype technology that is called the "electronic keel." The system is essentially a black box processor that takes in analog signals from a variety of technologies and converts them to an Internet data format and then distributes the information via cellular, wireless or satellite network to soldiers, says Nandita Mangal, software design engineer. Hardware can be connected directly into the 60-pound system, which is cooled on the interior and offers protection from electromagnetic interference, she adds.

The information is piped onto a touch screen display that is mounted on a swivel arm inside the vehicle. Several function keys line the bottom of the 12-pound monitor and each corresponds to a technology or sensor that is plugged into the data distribution system or fed over a network. With a single touch, troops can call up individual video feeds or flip through images, manipulate a robot, fire a weapon, pull up maps and chat. The technology is based on the Linux operating system, but many of its interface features are modeled after Apple's user-friendly iMac computers.

"We're putting 70 pounds into the vehicle, but we're taking out a couple hundred," says Chris Dour, vice president of Synexxus. The single display eliminates the need for all the proprietary monitors and computers that load down vehicles. Not only is it saving space and weight, but the technology also draws less power than all the systems it replaces--a two-thirds reduction in electricity demand, Glaros points out. …

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