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Army speeds high-tech tools to soldiers

Bomb-scouting 'bots and English-to-Arabic handhelds are a few of the gadgets concocted by the Army's Rapid Equipping Force. Gung-ho gadgets for U.S. troops

    The U.S. Army is playing up its ability to get high-tech tools to soldiers in the field more quickly and more affordably.

    Rather than weapons, the Army's Rapid Equipping Force is focusing on devices such as surveillance systems for searching out explosives, or handheld computers with voice recognition that carry a stockpile of phrases in Arabic. The goal isn't to devise the gadgets from scratch; instead, the unit looks for commercial products or items already in the production pipeline.

    The use of off-the-shelf technology means that even with modifications for military use, the gear can get to soldiers much faster than it would through the traditional acquisition process, according to the head of the Rapid Equipping Force. The unit has about 20 people in Afghanistan and Iraq who work directly with soldiers and commanders to determine their requirements.

    "What we don't want to do in my organization is develop (a tool) over a two- or three-year period and give it to the soldier three years from now," Col. Gregory Tubbs, director of the Rapid Equipping Force, said at a press briefing Friday, according to a transcript of the briefing. "If I'm looking for immediate warfighter needs, I want to help the soldier today."

    The Army at the Pentagon press briefing.

    The equipment included a number of remote-controlled devices for seeing around corners or over the next ridge. For instance, the Marcbot (multifunction agile remote-controlled robot) is a small, four-wheel vehicle--about the size of a large Tonka truck--that carries a video camera to let soldiers scan terrain for improvised explosive devices. Thirty Marcbots have already been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Rapid Equipping Force aims to ship out a "couple of hundred" more in the next six months or so.

    The Marcbot, which costs about $8,000 apiece in its current version, is not intended to carry weapons.

    Along the same lines is the Throwbot, a two-wheel gadget about the size of a soda can. Its name is descriptive: The Throwbot is meant to be tossed into buildings so that troops can survey the interior via camera before entering. About 1,000 are now in service.

    The Tacmav (tactical mini air vehicle), meanwhile, is a commercially available model plane, with an 18-inch wingspan, that's modified for use in combat. It carries two video cameras and can be monitored from a laptop computer.

    The Rapid Equipping Force has also turned out a "Palm Pilot-like" handheld to assist in translation when interpreters are not present. The gadget has a number of preset Arabic phrases that it can recite aloud when a soldier speaks the corresponding phrase in English.

    A more sophisticated device that would also translate back from Arab into English remains farther off.

    "I am looking at a two-way translator. I think that even gives you more power," Tubbs said. "But the technology's just not that--you know, as you well know, the Arabic language is much more complex than the English language."

    One nonlethal weapon that Tubbs showed off was a modified paintball gun, the FN303. "Obviously, you don't want to injure civilians or people that aren't that much of a threat to you," he said.