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Army touts new technology for field vehicles

Test finds existing engine sensors can be rigged to send wireless updates to remote computers, which could speed repairs, cut costs.

The U.S. Army announced Wednesday that it has completed a limited pilot study on a wireless sensor system that could be used to automate the sometimes dangerous process of repairing and maintaining vehicles in the field.

All engines on tactical vehicles already have sensors that track their location through a global-positioning system, or GPS, and record such data as fuel and tire-pressure levels and general engine health. Right now, Army personnel can only read the various information by plugging in a computer--or, of course, heading out and looking under the hood.

But it's possible for those existing sensors to report their findings automatically, wirelessly and in real time to central command and field units that employ an integrated software system, Catherine Jackson of the Army's Tank-automotive and Armaments Command said in a Wednesday teleconference.

The vehicle sensors would work by sending messages to IBM applications via the GPS satellite they currently use. That transmission technique is more sophisticated than that used by radio-frequency identification tags, which the U.S. Department of Defense currently embeds in its supplies to monitor inventory, said Ann Breidenbach, director of IBM's Sensor and Actuator Solutions unit.

Say, for instance, a Humvee was low on gas or ammunition. The engine sensor would automatically alert the off-site support crews of the problem, and they could then dispatch someone to deliver the goods. The sensors would also be capable of providing detailed enough engine information that personnel could make a diagnosis from afar.

The IBM applications would also store the vehicle's repair history in a database. Those using the system could "subscribe" to the Internet Protocol addresses of particular vehicles and have bulletins about those vehicles delivered on demand.

Over the last two years, Army researchers have tested the system on just three military vehicles at the command's Detroit site. The Army plans to pilot the technology on a full brigade of vehicles "sometime in the future," depending on what kind of funding is available, Jackson said.

Jackson said the new process could ultimately save money by removing the "paper and pencil" component of ordering parts for vehicles, which she said can lead to costly mistakes in orders and general inefficiency.

The Tank-automotive and Armaments Command spent $3.4 million on its part of the research, Jackson said. She was unable to provide estimates of how much further testing would cost. The next phase, should the Army decide to go ahead with it, would look deeper into the system's potential limitations, such as security concerns and bandwidth availability.