Magazine article National Defense

Army's Battlefield Network Requires New Thinking on Soldier Power

Magazine article National Defense

Army's Battlefield Network Requires New Thinking on Soldier Power

Article excerpt

* As the Army extends its battlefield communications network down to the individual soldier, it has greatly improved troops' ability to access and share information. This has created an entirely new challenge--the need for sustainable portable power.

The ongoing need to improve battery efficiency and reduce weight still holds, but the Army also is interested in fielding novel technologies that accomplish more than simply removing pounds from a soldier's load, said Steve Mapes, product lead for soldier power at Program Executive Office Soldier.

"As you have effectively closed that capability gap for combat information, a consequence is you have created an entirely new one for power and energy," Mapes said during a recent interview at Ft. Belvoir, Va. "As the Army moves toward bringing entire brigades into the network, we have to keep pace with that new Army strategy by providing the necessary support equipment to sustain those formations."

Mapes likened a networked radio to leaving a cell phone on during a plane ride at 30,000 feet. The constant search for a signal will drain the phone's battery much more quickly and it will almost certainly be dead or significantly depleted by the time the plane lands, he said.

"You're burning through batteries on a networked radio at a rate of two to four hours," he said. "A battery that is designed to last eight to 10 hours out of the network is consumed in two to four hours on the network."

The 2.5-pound, 150 watt-hour conformal battery was born out of the necessity to keep radios networked without weighing soldiers down with perhaps a dozen disposable batteries per day.

"There was no 'prior-to-this' battery. ... There was no need for such a capability with the urgency we have today because you didn't have all your guys running around with networked radios," Mapes said. "We're not necessarily replacing something. We are responding to an entirely new Army strategy with completely new architecture and support equipment."

The conformal battery is changed once every 24 hours as opposed to swapping out multiple batteries every six to eight hours, which cuts downtime and reduces the risk that a soldier will lose power to peripheral devices, said Steve Aviles, senior operations research analyst for the Operational Energy Branch of the Soldier Division at the Maneuver Center of Excellence in Ft. Benning, Ga.

"Even if we could charge our radio batteries and we didn't have to bring extras out, we would still be changing those out every six to eight hours," he said.

Introducing considerably more radios to the network also made primary, disposable batteries prohibitively expensive for the Army, he said. Without a state-of-charge indicator, soldiers did not know how much energy was left in their primary batteries. Each time they ventured outside the wire on patrol, they would throw away their old batteries and pop in brand new ones out of the package, he said.

The conformal batteries are part of capability set 13--the Army's first attempt to bring entire brigades into the network. It introduces networked battlefield communications gear to units at the team-leader level and above.

"Power is a growing issue and it always has been ... but it has spiked over the last three or four years and it has significantly spiked in capability set 13, when we actually did what we've been planning for a decade--we actually put soldiers in the network," Mapes said.

So far, four combat brigades have been equipped with the technology suite that includes radios, power management systems, attendant battery chargers and other support equipment. Full funding and fielding is scheduled for fiscal year 2016 for procurement and total small unit power should be completed in 2017, Mapes said.

The conformal battery is a flexible, multi-cell rechargeable power pack that fits into a soldier's chest or side body armor pouch over the protective plate. …

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