Working to make combat soldiers' lives easier

Road Trip 2010: BBN Technologies is often said to be the place that invented the Internet. Now it's owned by Raytheon and working on innovations designed to protect combat troops, and help them communicate.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
7 min read

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--In combat, things can be so chaotic and loud that soldiers sometimes aren't even aware they're being shot at.

But thanks to technology from the company that is often credited with inventing the Internet, thousands of American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are now able to rely on an automatic system that not only alerts them--in a very loud, urgent voice--that shots are being fired but also gives them an almost instant notification of where the shots are coming from.

This is Boomerang, a vehicle-mounted mobile acoustic shot detection system first developed by BBN Technologies in 2003, and which is now in its third iteration. And now, for the first time, BBN's owner, the giant defense contractor Raytheon, is making public that it has developed--and put into the field--a shoulder-mounted version of Boomerang that allows combat soldiers on foot patrol the same kind of almost instantaneous detection of shots fired, allowing them to quickly and effectively respond.

Boomerang is just one of countless innovations being developed at BBN, which Raytheon bought last fall and which I visited Monday as part of my Road Trip 2010 project. During an afternoon presentation, I saw several technology demonstrations, two of which I'm covering here.

Boomerang III
In the early stages of the Iraq war, there were constant cases of soldiers not even being aware that their vehicles were being fired at, explained David Schmitt, the director of programs in BBN's Omega division. Recalling that in the 1990s there had been good stationary acoustic shot-detection systems, some at DARPA--the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency--turned to BBN and asked the company to come up with a mobile version of the technology.

This is a shoulder-mounted version of the Boomerang, a mobile acoustic shot-detection system. Though Boomerang has been a vehicle-mounted system since its development in 2003, this version allows combat soldiers to count on shot detection even when they are on foot patrol. CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman got a chance to visit BBN Technologies--which is owned by the giant defense contractor Raytheon--and see Boomerang in action.
This is a shoulder-mounted version of the Boomerang, a mobile acoustic shot-detection system. Though Boomerang has been a vehicle-mounted system since its development in 2003, this version allows combat soldiers to count on shot detection even when they are on foot patrol. CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman got a chance to visit BBN Technologies--which is owned by the giant defense contractor Raytheon--and see Boomerang in action. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

The idea behind what eventually became Boomerang is that a gunshot generates two distinct acoustic signatures: a shock wave that comes off the bullet, which goes twice the speed of sound, and a muzzle blast that travels at the speed of sound.

Boomerang was designed to determine, first of all, if the sound that it registered is even a gunshot at all, and if so, to measure the shockwave so that it can determine the azimuth, the elevation, and the range of the shooter's location, Schmitt explained.

By associating the signature of the shockwave with the sound of the muzzle blast, Boomerang is able to produce data on a shooter in less than a second and with close to a zero percent rate of false positives, Schmitt said.

With the third iteration of Boomerang, known as Boomerang III, BBN has tightened its measurements and is now able to determine, within 2.5 degrees the shooter's azimuth and elevation and estimate his or her range to within 10 percent of the actual distance. All of that, and the fact that Boomerang's loudspeaker blaring out the relevant data on a shooter, makes it much easier for the American soldier to know that shots are being fired and fight back quickly and accurately.

In its vehicle-mounted manifestations, Boomerang looks a bit like an umbrella mast that has had a number of microphones mounted on it, facing downward in several directions. And that's pretty much true, given that the multiple mikes give the system the best chance of determining the direction from which shots have been fired.

And while Boomerang was initially designed to handle fire coming in from a single shooter, it is also capable of handling more than that, said Schmitt, who added that in a recorded attack in which three insurgents in Iraq tried attacking a vehicle carrying Boomerang from three directions, the system was able to pinpoint all three, and the Americans were able to take them out in 20 seconds.

To date, more than 5,000 Boomerang systems have been delivered to Iraq and Afghanistan, not including the Boomerang Warrior, BBN's new shoulder-mounted version of the technology.

And while the smaller footprint of the Warrior version means that soldiers give up a bit of the accuracy found in the Boomerang III, it is still able to identify a shooter's azimuth and elevation to within 7.5 degrees, and his or her range to within 15 percent to 20 percent of the actual distance, Schmitt explained.

Click here for a photo gallery of images of the innovations of BBN Technologies.

Internet's inventor tackles wartime innovations (photos)

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Even better, the Warrior version is adept at adjusting for the body motion of a soldier on foot, even if he or she jumps out of the way of incoming fire.

And now, BBN is moving forward with testing on a helicopter-mounted version of Boomerang that can determine not only where fire is coming from but also the caliber of weapon being used to fire at the chopper, a crucial piece of information given that smaller weapons fire most likely doesn't require a response, whereas larger guns almost certainly do.

Another impressive technology I got to see during my visit to BBN was a system that can do on-the-fly translation between words and phrases spoken in English and either Pashto--which is spoken in Afghanistan--or Arabic. And vice versa. All in real time.

This technology, like Boomerang, has been around for a few years, but BBN is constantly iterating its effectiveness, and only in the last few months has the system gotten good enough to do accurate, on-the-fly translations of unscripted conversations, said Premkumar Natarajan, BBN's vice president for speech, language, and multimedia.

In the case of English-Pashto translations, the system is based on a vocabulary database of more than 40,000 words. In the case of Arabic, that number is more than 80,000. It can come in many different form factors, but what I saw was a version of the system running on two Bluetooth-enabled Nexus One Android phones that were not connected to a data network. In other words, all the translation processing was happening on the devices themselves.

And it's not necessary to even have two of the phones. The system is geared to work on just one in case that's all that's available, Natarajan said.

At my prompting, Natarajan and a fellow BBN employee who speaks Pashto put on a demonstration for me (see video below).

In it, they went back and forth in a role-playing discussion in which Natarajan played a U.S. soldier and the other employee played an Afghani explaining that local infrastructure was basically not working. Each time one would speak, there would be a moment's pause--and a distinct electronic thinking sound--and then the other's phone would spit out the translated words. The system also produced on the devices' screens written transcriptions of the spoken words, in both languages.

Naturally, I don't speak Pashto, so it's hard for me to say with 100 percent confidence that what I was seeing was true translation, but it certainly seemed like the real thing. And while the conversation was rudimentary, if it had been real, it certainly would have gotten the salient points across.

This system is based on three technologies, Natarajan said. First, a speech-to-text algorithm developed by BBN. Second, a machine translation also developed by BBN. And finally, a commodity text-to-speech application.

For now, BBN is happy that this system is working well enough to be able to do unscripted discussion, and Natarajan said that BBN has sent different manifestations of the technology into "all the theaters [of war] for testing." But now, there's a lot more to do, he said. For example, one of the most pressing needs is to figure out how those who use the tool can add new words to its vocabulary while in the field. As well, they want to see how to make it interface with other systems, and how to use it to do more sophisticated recording of spoken concepts in the field.

One cool use, Natarajan said, is that the system is capable of recording voices and doing voice pattern matching. That means that the military can in theory keep records of people's voices, and use them, say, to verify at one checkpoint, if someone is the same person as someone that caught soldiers' attention at another checkpoint. In that sense, he said, this system could take on a bit of the role of an audio "wanted" sign.

As always when I visit companies like BBN on Road Trip, I'm only able to see what's presented to me, and so I know that I missed literally days and days of presentations worth of other technologies. But what I saw was definitely impressive and made me wonder what else the company has up its sleeve. After all, once upon a time it invented the Internet--or at least crucial elements of it. I wonder what the next world-changing development to come out of these Cambridge doors will be?

For the next two weeks, Geek Gestalt will be on Road Trip 2010. After driving more than 18,000 miles in the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest and the Southeast over the last four years, I'll be looking for the best in technology, science, military, nature, aviation and more throughout the American northeast. If you have a suggestion for someplace to visit, drop me a line. In the meantime, you can follow my progress on Twitter @GreeterDan and @RoadTrip and find the project on Facebook. And you can also test your knowledge of the U.S. and try to win a prize in the Road Trip Picture of the Day challenge.