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Tech Industry

The high-tech future for the Army

Chief Scientist Thomas Killion talks about Army R&D efforts, high-tech soldiering and the outlook for robots and drones.

Today's incursions by high tech into the ranks of the U.S. Army are just the first wave.

The next wave will include a lot more robots and drones, and they'll be smarter and more autonomous than the current gear. They'll communicate better with each other and do more and more of the dangerous legwork now done by flesh-and-blood soldiers, and some of them will be as small as insects. Meanwhile, U.S. forces will start to field so-called directed-energy weapons: lasers that can shoot down incoming artillery rounds, and less-than-lethal "heat rays" designed to disperse crowds.

That's the vision, anyway. The reality isn't so easy. Getting those lasers to be field-ready, for instance, is "a very hard technical problem," says Thomas Killion, the Department of the Army's deputy assistant secretary for research and technology--or more casually, chief scientist.

And the centerpiece of the Army's technological makeover, the ambitious , looks likely to lose a big chunk of hoped-for funding in the 2008 defense budget, currently being debated in Congress.

In a nutshell, FCS--with a development schedule stretching well into the next decade--aims for a complete package of fully networked and brand-new gear ranging from unattended ground sensors to manned and unmanned vehicles, common components and a common operating environment, battle command software, next-generation communications systems and more. As it stands, the Army in July set out its schedule for the first FCS spinouts--a "low-rate initial production effort"--of some gear, including ground mobile radio technology and the non-line-of-sight cannon, or NLOS-C.

Of course, there have been notable tech successes along the way, such as the robots that soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are using to find roadside bombs and other explosives.

Killion--who has a Ph.D. in experimental psychology, a degree from the Naval War College and work experience for the U.S. Air Force--spoke with this week about how FCS fits into the larger scheme of the Army's R&D efforts, how the Army's research efforts tie in with similar work throughout the Defense Department, and what's up with specific tech projects including gear currently serving in Iraq, along with upcoming minirobots and solid-state lasers.

How do you find that the Air Force and the Army compare in the way they use high technology?
Killion: I think what's interesting is the change over time. The Air Force, in fact, is a technology-based institution. It was built upon the invention of a technology, the airframe and the airplane, that was always a driver and depended very strongly upon technology for the advancement of that capability. The Army has only more recently gone much more of the high-tech route. But I think if you went out today and look at what is in, in fact, the latest version of the Abrams and the Bradley or in the Stryker, and certainly as we're evolving into Future Combat Systems, you'll find the same level of computation, display technology, communications systems that you see in the platforms that the Air Force uses. So technology is as key a driver for the Army now as it always has been for the Air Force.

We're growing a generation of soldiers who see robots as part of their normal way of doing business, and that's how we're going to conduct our business in the future, with a mix of manned and unmanned systems.

What do you think you bring from your Air Force experience to your job with the Army?
Killion: Interestingly, it sort of follows on two specific aspects that I brought from the Air Force, and then a more general one. One specific aspect is, the work I was doing with the Air Force was in electronic warfare and electronic combat--it was all about air crew survivability. What's very useful to me today, and very interesting, is the evolution of our ground platforms to where we are dealing with the same issues on how to ensure survivability for our crews in ground platforms--in terms of constraints on weight and volume and yet using all kinds of techniques and not simply heavy armor to protect the crews--as we've traditionally done with air platforms. We have to use electronic warfare, you try to do signature management, you enhance situational awareness and use various techniques to survive as opposed to simply putting on more armor, which we can't afford any more.

Second is in . I really did a lot of work with the Air Force in that area, and unmanned systems is a major concept for future force operations, both within FCS and elsewhere. And then more generally I think what's beneficial is, I've actually worked for all three services (Air Force, Navy and Army). The good news there is that it really is a DOD/S&T (Department of Defense/science and technology) enterprise, and it's valuable to have that network of people that I know across the services in terms of looking at how we best utilize all of our capabilities.

Looking specifically now at Future Combat Systems, it seems like for the 2008 defense budget, that program is not going to get all the money that the Pentagon was looking for. How does that affect what's going on with the movement toward unmanned vehicles and more electronics, more intelligence in the gear the Army is using?
Killion: You'll have to ask Gen. Cartwright (editors' note: Maj. Gen. Charles Cartwright is program manager for Future Combat Systems, Brigade Combat Team) about the specifics of what the direct impact on this process is. I am not sure of exactly what the contingencies are as to what they will plan to not do given that they don't get full funding. I know that the marks that we have seen to date have provided full funding for our S&T program. We are working some key component technologies that are feeding into things like unmanned systems and active protection and so on that are feeding the Future Combat Systems program longer-term.

It seems like what's going to happen in the near future is what has been termed low-rate spin-outs--some of the gear coming out of Future Combat Systems being applied to current machines like the Abrams, the Bradley, the Humvee.
Killion: Well, they're certainly looking at spin-outs from technologies that were going into FCS and how can we bring those forward in the field today, things like some of the unattended ground sensors.

So the FCS then is a long-range vision and the Army is pulling out pieces as it can?
Killion: Yes, and I think there are several reasons for that. One is, of course, because it provides new capabilities and enhanced capabilities to our soldiers. We want to provide that capability to as much of the force as possible and so that's why you see the spin-outs to the non-FCS brigades, if you will. Another is because we want to allow our soldiers to became familiar with and comfortable with the technology that's coming in FCS, so by the time FCS arrives, they will have seen a number of the components of that system and it won't be like a big bang--all of a sudden everything shows up and everybody has to learn about all of its capabilities and how to use it and be trained on it and everything else. They'll be components that are very familiar to them.

Right now there is the one Stryker brigade in Iraq that's using some components of Land Warrior--not of Future Combat Systems.
Killion: Right, that's Land Warrior. But still, it's a similar concept--you're trying to get to some component of the force as much of the newer technology as possible. One of the things I always tell people about is I'm very heartened to see the proliferation of robotics today. There are now literally thousands of little ground robots, primarily things like PackBot and so on that our soldiers are using in theater, both in Afghanistan and Iraq, and that's important for several reasons. One, because the robots allow us to do tasks without putting soldiers at risk.

Second, it gets people comfortable, it demonstrates the capability of the technology, what can be done with robotics, and as robotics evolve even more will be done with it. And certainly last but not least is that we're growing a generation of soldiers who see robots as part of their normal way of doing business, and that's how we're going to conduct our business in the future, with a mix of manned and unmanned systems. The degree to which our soldiers are comfortable with and see the benefits of utilizing robotics to do their job, it lowers the barriers to implementing that vision in the future.

How do you see the role of robots and evolving over the next couple of years and then farther out--say, five or 10 years?
Killion: In the near term, of course, we have them doing a lot of ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) roles. Things like Predator do reconnaissance and so on, and it can even carry lethal weapons in some cases with very clear control over the use of these weapons. That will continue to proliferate. What's going to happen over the next four or five years is an increase in the level of autonomy those systems are capable of using--that is that they can do more tasks on their own and become less of a burden on the soldier who has to operate them.

A lot of the systems today are tele-operated. That means a soldier has to spend all of his time essentially controlling a system, in terms of things like PackBot and so on. We want to get away from burdening soldiers in that way, and the work that we're doing largely in support of the FCS program is demonstrating where they can do a lot of planning and execution on their own and they really only have to essentially call home to a soldier that's controlling it when it needs additional guidance or is posed with a situation it doesn't know what to do or it is at a point in the mission where it really needs further direction so it knows exactly what to do next.

Then longer-term--in fact we're kicking off next year a new collaborative technology alliance at the Army Research Laboratory on microautonomous systems and technologies. That is, to build very small robotic systems on the scale of a hummingbird or smaller than that, things that you can carry in your hand or that can crawl around on the floor--wherever it might be that would provide significant intelligence/surveillance capabilities, particularly in urban environments and in interior spaces--and do it in a very nonintrusive way.

So in building systems that have that in terms of the necessary power, in terms of the compactness of the sensors, in terms of the communications payloads, those are all significant technical challenges that we have to address to really make those systems a reality and useful to the warfighter.

The military in general and the people leading the military tend to be fairly conservative. Do you have to do a hard sell? What kind of an approach do you have to take to get the commanding generals and then, farther down the line, soldiers to accept the new technology?
Killion: It goes back to what I was discussing earlier. In the case of robotics we've sort of inoculated a lot of people now to the idea that robots are a useful capability to have, and the soldiers themselves see the benefit and say, I want more of this kind of capability. Putting some functional capability into their hands--that is, actually provide benefit as opposed to a burden--provides a motivation for even more of that technology or enhancements to that technology.

What's going to happen over the next four or five years is an increase in the level of autonomy (that robots and drones) are capable of using.

You do it multiple ways. You convince people with current technologies and evolve that. You do it by prototyping technology. You also do it by giving soldiers exposure to what's going on in our laboratories and centers and with our partners in industry and in academia. We have soldiers who spend time at our Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies up at MIT, for example, who are essentially embedded in the research program up there and get a chance to see the future potential of nanotechnology, how that's going to affect our systems and sensors and electronics and clothing and everything else that we'll have for the future.

How well is the Army modernizing in general, whether it's FCS or Land Warrior or just making use of battery-powered gear, game controllers and so forth?
Killion: I think the Army is doing a very good job of exploiting, wherever possible, technology that's available and adapting that to the environment. As I tell people, we really benefit from technology in three ways. One is because we invested in the past in technology and it's provided a product that's in the field today. Something like a PackBot came from a program at DARPA called Tactical Mobile Robots that was done in the '90s. Our labs then experimented with those platforms and added sensors and control capabilities to them. Then when the war came upon us that technology was available then to be exploited, specifically for things like sending them into caves in Afghanistan or going into interior spaces or as a platform for inspecting potential devices with EOD (explosive ordance disposal) guys, that kind of thing.

Second was adapting programs that we were working on currently like work down at Night Vision on uncooled (infrared) sensors, where we adapted some of those sensor technologies and came up with a cave-and-urban-environments kind of kit--lightweight sensors that could be sent down a well or put on a small robot carried into a cave or worn by a soldier on his helmet going into a dark urban environment. It's really technology that is still being worked today, but it's adapted very rapidly for the field.

The Army is doing a very good job of exploiting wherever possible technology that's available and adapting that to the environment.

And probably most importantly is just the expertise of our scientists and engineers who are out there, both in our labs as well as in our partners' in industry and in academia, who understand enough about the Army and the challenges we're faced with to bring good ideas to the table and then can build some kind of prototype to go do it. The Army has had to adapt very rapidly and we used a lot different mechanisms, things like the REF--the Rapid Equipping Force--and the Rapid Fielding Program down at PEO Soldier to get technology out to the field much more rapidly than we could in the past. A lot of that, as has always been the case, is driven by the exigencies of wartime operation and the need to provide capabilities as quickly as you can to help the soldiers.

How does the Army's own research and development fit in with what goes on at DARPA, The Office of Naval Research, the Air Force Research Lab?
Killion: I work with my counterparts in the other services, the S&T executives and with Tony Tether at DARPA and James Tegnelia, who is director out at DTRA (the Defense Threat Reduction Agency), to try and work at the top-level coordination and collaboration among our programs. Most of that coordination and collaboration really goes on at the working level where scientists and engineers--for example at the Army Research Lab--are very familiar with their counterparts at Air Force Research Lab or the Navy Research Lab or one of the Navy centers, program managers at DARPA. They get together and work on, OK, here is how my program relates to, interacts with, leverages what you are doing there and how we can all make progress more effectively by deciding who is going to do what part of the problem.

For example, we do a lot where the scientists and engineers in our labs and centers are actually the program managers for DARPA programs, because DARPA doesn't have that many people. The people who are the--I call them the entrepreneurs at DARPA--the program managers there really use the assistance of our scientists and engineers and those in the Air Force and in the Navy to actually manage and execute the programs that they have.

Then even within the Army itself it seems there is an abundance of different programs. I'm still trying to figure out exactly how Land Warrior fits with Future Combat Systems, with Future Force Warrior....
Killion: Land Warrior was a generation of warrior systems. Future Force Warrior--which was previously called Objective Force Warrior, back when we had something called the Objective Force and Future Force--was sort of the next generation and enhancement in terms of the amount and capability of the various sensors, communications gear, weapon interfaces and so on, beyond what was available in the Land Warrior program and integrating that into an integrated system.

Directed energy we see as the next-generation capability to defeat inbound projectiles. But it's still a very hard technical problem.

As you said earlier, there is a Stryker Brigade that has Land Warrior kit in theater today and is experimenting with it and there seems to be some very positive feedback from that. We'll be doing our culminating demonstrations with the Future Force Warrior program this summer and this fall at the C4ISR On-the-Move demonstration, up ahead at Fort Monmouth or Dix and then at something called AAEF (Air Assault Expeditionary Force). It's a demonstration with the TRADOC (Training and Doctrine Command) folks down at Fort Benning--that will be in the October time frame.

Really that's a sort of next generation--more computing, greater sensor capability, new power subsystems--that will allow you to operate for a longer period of time, those sort of things, and then we look at how we can transition those components into the Soldier Program as it evolves over time.

Now how does that work with FCS? (In) Experiment 1.1 that was conducted very early this year, in fact the soldiers who were participating in the experiment were wearing the Future Force Warrior kit. So it was FFW that was interfacing with the FCS platform that they are using. The reason that they were able to do that is because Future Force Warrior is using the Soldier Radio Waveform that's been designed for JTRS (the Joint Tactical Radio System) and is one of the key components in the networking capability for Future Combat Systems.

Boeing just got a contract from the Army to work on a high-energy laser on a truck. There are things like (the so-called heat ray). Taser has got a deal with iRobot to supply their technology for potential use by soldiers. How does all this mishmash of directed energy and stuff fit in with what you're trying to accomplish?
Killion: The contract for Boeing on the high-energy laser tech demo came from the Army, from SMDC (the Army's Space and Missile Defense Command). They are lead for our high-energy solid-state laser program, which we are working jointly with the High-Energy Laser Joint Technology Office and the Air Force, investing in the next phase of our solid-state laser program where we are going from a nominal 25 kW laser capability to a 100 kW capability. There are two contractors who are working essentially on the laser engine for that capability. The contract that has been let to Boeing is really about starting to build the architecture for, once you have that laser engine, how do you build that into a weapons system and start to work out the issues of things like power management and beam control that would support that system and put it into a mobile configuration?

Directed energy we see as the next-generation capability particularly for counter-rocket/artillery/mortar capability to defeat inbound projectiles. But it's still a very hard technical problem. We are working hard to make this a reality--it's going to take some time. We have a good program to do that and the Boeing contract is a piece of that program as well as the ongoing tech development efforts with Northrop Grumman and with Textron to build the laser engine. Active Denial is directed energy--obviously, a different part of the spectrum and at a different power level than something like a high-powered laser. We've been looking at lower-power lasers for things like destroying exposed ordnance or mines that might be sitting on the ground and we've done some work with that, demonstrated the capability to do that in Afghanistan previously.