Army R&D delivers 'greatest inventions' (photos)

The latest annual list of 10 new products and practical extensions makes note of grenade launchers, aerial video, IED defense, and a solar recharger.

Jon Skillings
Jon Skillings is an editorial director at CNET, where he's worked since 2000. A born browser of dictionaries, he honed his language skills as a US Army linguist (Polish and German) before diving into editing for tech publications -- including at PC Week and the IDG News Service -- back when the web was just getting under way, and even a little before. For CNET, he's written on topics from GPS, AI and 5G to James Bond, aircraft, astronauts, brass instruments and music streaming services.
Jon Skillings
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M320 grenade launcher

Every year, the U.S. Army recognizes the ingenuity of its soldiers and support staff with a list of what it calls its top 10 inventions for the preceding calendar year. And every year, that list seems to come later and later--when we first started tracking the achievements in 2007, it was June, then that turned into September, and for the latest list, November. So without any further delay, we present to you the U.S. Army Greatest Inventions of 2009.

We'll start with the 40mm M320 grenade launcher, fielded in June 2009. It's the chunky piece of gear attached below the barrel of what looks to be an M4 carbine (it also attaches to the similar M16 rifle); the 82nd Airborne soldier is holding its pistol grip with his left hand.

2 of 17 C. Todd Lopez./U.S. Army

M320, detached

Unlike the older M203 grenade launcher, which it replaces, the M320 can be detached--with no special tools required, the Army says--for use as a standalone weapon. It works with a handheld laser rangefinder and an infrared illuminator and designator. For reliability and safety, it has a double-action firing trigger. The M320 was developed by the Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center (ARDEC) at the Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey.

"Greatest inventions as used in the context of the AGI program," the Army says, "are practical extensions, applications and/or game-changing new products emerging from the Army's R&D community that improve readiness and positively impact the Warfighter."

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40mm pivoting coupling

The next invention, the 40mm pivoting coupling, is a component for a much larger grenade launcher, the MK19 weapon system. The coupling allows for a more continuous feed of ammunition to the MK19--soldiers can link together full or partial ammo belts, or even relink single rounds, without having to stop to reload. Before the advent of the new coupling, which also came out of Picatinny's ARDEC group, grenadiers had to rely on one-time, 32-round belts. It was approved for production in August 2009.
4 of 17 Spc. John Crosby/U.S. Army

MK19 grenade launcher

The air-cooled, belt-fed MK19 weapon system is designed to not overheat even with prolonged firing. It has a sustained rate of fire of 40 rounds per minute, and a rapid rate of 60 per minute. The maximum range for the MK19 is a little over 2,000 yards.
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Rucksack Enhanced Portable Power System

The Army sees a lot of promise in solar power for operations in the field, from tents with photovoltaics built into the canopy to this, the Rucksack Enhanced Portable Power System, or REPPS. Fielded over a number of months in 2009, REPPS is the first field-deployable portable battery-charging system, according to the Army. The solar elements (they're anti-glint, by the way) are intended to provide an alternative power source in harsh environments. And it's no luxury--today's soldier gear has a voracious appetite for batteries.

REPPS comes out of the Army's Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center, or CERDEC. It can charge most common military battery types in five to six hours, and several REPPS systems can be daisy-chained to charge gear with higher energy demands, according to the Army.

6 of 17 Robin Cofer, Apache PM Contractor/U.S. Army

VUIT-2 for Apache

The next invention is a mouthful: "upgraded video from unmanned aerial system for interoperability teaming, level 2, for the AH-64D Apache attack helicopter." There's a shorthand, fortunately: VUIT-2. The system allows Apache pilots to receive video from unmanned aircraft such as the RQ-7 Shadow that have been doing recon and target acquisition in the battle area ahead of the helicopter's arrival. Pictured here is an AH-64D equipped with VUIT-2 in the air at Fort Rucker, Ala., during testing.

The VUIT-2 technology is from the Army's Aviation and Missile Research Development and Engineering Center. It was fielded over the course of 2009.

7 of 17 Robin Cofer, Apache PM Contractor/U.S. Army

VUIT-2 cockpit panels

Using the VUIT-2 gear in the cockpit, Apache pilots in Iraq and Afghanistan receive live, streaming video from the unmanned aircraft as well as from fighter jets equipped with Sniper or Lightning targeting pods. "This gives the Apache helicopter a huge advantage," Col. Derek Paquette, Apache project manager, said in an Army.mil story from 2008, previewing the VUIT-2 capabilities. "Before the enemy even hears the Longbow, the crew has utilized VUIT-2 to gain situational awareness and identify the target. The crew then obtains clearance for fires and maneuvers to attack the target, all the while maintaining eyes on it using VUIT-2, and then launches a lethal barrage of weapons that will eliminate the target."
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RQ-7 Shadow

The Shadow is among the UAVs that can provide streaming video to the VUIT-2-equipped Apaches. The baseline interface for the arrangement is the One System Remote Video Terminal, or OSRVT, which was an Army top invention for 2008. The VUIT-2 upgrade honored this time around features, among other things, new software, reduced electro-magnetic interference, and exploitation of Vortex technology and encryption, according to the Army.
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Burn Fluid Rescuscitation DSS

The Burn Fluid Resuscitation Decision Support System, or BRDSS, is a software application out of the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research. It's designed for medical staff at field hospitals who don't regularly provide care for burn victims. According to the Army: "It utilizes an algorithm to generate recommendations for IV fluid rates to improve fluid balance during the initial 48 hours after the burn and aims to avoid complications associated with inadequate or excessive resuscitation strategies." Among other things, it can help providers adjust infusion volumes according to body weight and burn size. The BRDSS was fielded in April 2009.
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CREW Duke 3

Another greatest invention for 2009 with a name that goes on and on is the Counter Radio Controlled Improvised Explosive Device Electronic Warfare Duke, version 3. Again, fortunately, there is a catchier acronym: CREW Duke 3. The Duke system is electronic gear added to a ground vehicle to provide protection against the remote-controlled roadside bombs known as IEDs.
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Duke-equipped Humvee

With Duke, for the first time a single program load can account for all the known IED threats that a Humvee or other vehicle might encounter, and the system can be reprogrammed to account for newer threats, according to the Army. Interference with other electronic systems, such as the Blue Force Tracker, is said to be minimal.

The Army says that in 2009 it fielded 12,500 Duke V3 units, which came out of the CERDEC group. Through November 2010, more than 40,000 Duke systems had gone operational on Army combat vehicles in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Landmine blast field event reconstruction

Along with IEDs, explosive threats to vehicles include landmines. To better understand the specifics of how landmines damage the undercarriage of vehicles, and thus to craft better protection, the Army's Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) is studying landmine blast field event reconstruction using computational modeling and simulation. The full-vehicle system, which was fielded throughout 2009, uses data from theater--that is, from Iraq and Afghanistan--to look at all the critical elements of the "blast phenomenon," including soil, air, explosive charge, vehicle, and occupants.

"It enables analysts to bridge the gap between live-fire testing and actual field events for these complex and highly transient events," the Army says. "It also allows product development teams to consider real-world scenarios that may not be reflected in existing test and evaluation procedures."

Depicted here is the cabin of an MRAP (mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle), a type of heavy-duty vehicle sent to Iraq in large numbers in the latter part of the last decade.

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MRAP overhead wire mitigation kit

As MRAPs patrol urban areas and more open terrain, the turret gunner is vulnerable to a number of dangers, including overhead wires stretching across the roadway. To provide better protection for the gunner and the vehicle as a whole, TARDEC devised the MRAP overhead wire mitigation kit, the arced metal struts seen here, which can push the wires safely up and out of the way. The OWM kit also reduces the potential for damage to local infrastructure, including power, communication, and even laundry lines. It was fielded in June 2009.
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Objective Weapon Elevation Kit

The Objective Weapon Elevation Kit allows a turret gunner on a vehicle such as a Humvee or an MRAP to point the M-2 machine gun upward at an angle of 80 degrees, an improvement on the earlier limitation of 67 degrees. The two pieces of the OWEK are a bearing sleeve spacer, which raises the weapon assembly by a little over 5 inches, and a ballistic skirt, which covers the gap between the roof of the vehicle and the front gun shield.
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OWEK ballistic skirt

The OWEK (shown here again) is a follow-on to the Objective Gunner Protection Kit (OGPK), which was an Army top invention for 2007. Devised by ARDEC at Picatinny Arsenal, the OWEK was fielded over a number of months in 2009.
16 of 17 U.S. Army

Wolfhound Handheld Threat Warning System

The Wolfhound Handheld Threat Warning System is a radio frequency direction-finder, "the only known handheld device of its kind," according to the Army. The low-power Wolfhound system, fielded in 2009, is designed for "simplified operations" in "austere conditions," the Army says, and "also rapidly geo-locates RF transmitters operating in the Very High Frequency and Ultra High Frequency bands." It is intended to help U.S. forces find enemy command and control nodes, as well as observation posts and spotter positions, and can also assist in combat search and rescue efforts.
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Wolfhound system, man-packable

A creation of CERDEC, the communications research group, Wolfhound is suitable for man-pack operations (hence the rucksack here), vehicle-mounted use (as in the previous slide), and fixed-site setups.

"The Wolfhound system was developed in response to Soldiers saying 'We can hear them--we need to be able to locate them,'" said John Lynch, Wolfhound product manager, in a statement. "Soldiers can master the 'buttonology' of Wolfhound in about 20 minutes and can learn use and concept of operation in about 16 hours."

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