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Soldiers adding high tech to the arsenal

Uniforms, helmets hold networking, computing, navigational devices

By D.C. Denison
Globe Staff / November 16, 2009

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When the largest annual military communications conference in the United States opened at the Seaport World Trade Center in Boston last month, the show floor was dominated by large spike-like antennas, vehicle-mounted satellite dishes, and wide-screen computer displays.

But many booths at the event, Milcom 2009, featured technology that seemed to be heading in the other direction: toward small portable devices that can be tucked under helmets, stashed in backpacks, and sewn into uniforms.

A highlight of the General Dynamics C4 Systems display, for example, was a soldier mannequin outfitted with the company’s Land Warrior system, which includes a vest and a backpack stuffed with computing, networking, and navigational technology.

C4 Systems’ president, Chris Marzilli, said he was excited by how much technology has migrated to “the pointy end of the spear’’ - military personnel on the battlefield.

Indeed, as technology moves from laboratories to war zones, troops on the ground are able to get access to more information, faster than ever.

The high-tech gear allows them not only to know what is happening, but what might happen next.

It’s key to a US military strategy that envisions the battlefield warrior as the front-line link in an elaborate information web.

“The soldier is part of a fighting network that includes planes, ships, tanks, drones,’’ said Donald Quenneville, executive director of the Defense Technology Initiative, an industry group that promotes defense technology in New England. “They are all connected.’’

A lot of soldier-centric technology comes from Massachusetts, which not only hosts high-tech military contractors like Raytheon Co., but also military-supported research centers focused on technology for men and women on the battlefield.

“Massachusetts is strong in networking and communications, and that carries over to defense and military projects,’’ Quenneville said. “Most of the big companies that are strong in this kind of technology have defense-related divisions.’’

A large flat-screen monitor in the General Dynamics C4 Systems exhibit conveyed just how much data are now available to the soldier. The monitor showed what a typical soldier would see in his helmet-mounted eyepiece:

The battlefield looked like a video game, with bright indicators labeling important locations and other squad members already in the field, to avoid friendly-fire incidents.

Land Warrior, which includes technology developed at General Dynamic’s C4 Systems division in Taunton, also contains communications and navigation equipment that relays information to “higher operations and all the way back to strategic,’’ Marzilli said.

Elsewhere at Milcom, Mercury Computer Systems Inc., based in Chelmsford, showed off a powerful ultra-portable computer, about the size of an external hard drive, that allows troops to crunch radar and video data in the field.

Raytheon’s BBN Technologies has also created a number of products, including the Boomerang Warrior, which can be seamlessly integrated into a uniform.

Mark Sherman, the company’s general manager of technology transfer, said it is part of the broader emergence of “the soldier as platform.’’

General Dynamics’ Land Warrior is a good example of how soldiers’ equipment has evolved.

“It’s been a natural progression,’’ said Mark Showah, director of the integrated systems group. “Just as your home computer is plugged into a network that gives you access to all sorts of incredible information - that’s what’s happening on the battlefield. The soldier is entering the digital age.’’

Showah added that information now flows both ways: to the fighter, and from the fighter to commanders.

“Land Warrior enables the soldier to go into battle with a networked computer. It gives him information that he never had access to before,’’ he said. “But the soldier himself is also the best gatherer of information on the battlefield, and this kind of technology shortens the time it takes to get that information to the commander.’’

Much of the soldier-centric technology in New England revolves around the US Army Soldier Systems Center in Natick, which has more than 2,000 employees. The center, with an annual budget of $1 billion, tackles a wide range of challenges, from designing better-fitting boots to envisioning what the soldier of 2030 will look like.

“We look at the soldier as a system,’’ said spokesman David Accetta.

Such soldier systems can extend miles up into the sky. Getting supplies to the troops in Afghanistan, for example, has been a challenge. Roads are sometimes nonexistent, or mined with hidden explosives. Supply helicopters are an easy target.

One solution is to use remote-controlled parachutes that can be guided to hit a target that is precisely defined by GPS coordinates. The parachutes, designed in Natick, can be dropped from 18,000 to 25,000 feet, delivering food, ammunition, water, batteries, electronic equipment, construction material, and even fuel.

“Precision air drops are more expensive, compared to convoys,’’ said Richard Benney, division leader for the aerial delivery equipment and systems division at Natick. “But they are much faster, and much safer.’’

The Combat Feeding Directorate in Natick has been working on a more basic soldier need: food. The group, with more than 130 employees, has this year rolled out two initiatives. The first uses pressure, in addition to heat, to ensure sterility and to enhance taste. The directorate has also created a powerful microwave sterilization process that penetrates food more deeply than standard kitchen microwaves.

“The food will last longer,’’ said Natick food technologist Lauren Oleksyk, “but it will also taste better and retain more nutrients.’’

Researchers at Natick have also developed a self-heating “kitchen in a carton’’ that has a complete meal for 18 fighters, all in one 42-pound box. The box includes entrees, vegetables, dessert, serving trays, and utensils. A simple pull tab activates chemical heaters that heat the food. The system has been used in Afghanistan since the beginning of the year.

The MIT Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies is primarily devoted to fundamental science and engineering research, but one product has made it into the hands of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan: a chemical sensing material that can detect minute amounts of explosive materials.

ICx Technologies Inc., which has an office in Cambridge, used the polymer material to develop a line of “Fido’’ explosives detectors that have been in used in Iraq and Afghanistan to screen people and vehicles.

Fido product manager Ken Bosma served for over 23 years in the Army and Army National Guard as a combat arms officer, most recently in Afghanistan. Although military equipment is often impressive, he said, there are limitations on how it can be applied to soldiers.

“There is only so much weight you can put on a soldier’s body, and only so much training and so many tasks you can ask a soldier to do,’’ he said.

Bosma said that during his tours, he often saw sophisticated technology “used as doorstops’’ because it was too heavy to carry around.

The selling point of Fido detectors, Bosma said, is that they help soldiers detect traces of explosives before a bomb goes off. The detectors can also be used in investigations after an explosion.

BBN Technologies has been working on some defense technologies recently that are not new concepts for the Cambridge research firm; what’s novel is how they have been shrunk to work at the level of the individual fighter, instead of requiring a large computer or an antenna tower.

Recently, BBN put its language-translation technology into a portable package so it can run using a hand-held microphone-speaker combination and a standard laptop computer. That comes in handy at military checkpoints, which sometimes need to debrief people quickly without an interpreter.

BBN’s Boomerang Shooter Detection System is another technology that has been downsized. The system leverages the company’s expertise in acoustic technology to pinpoint the source of sniper fire by tracking sonic waves from incoming bullets. The sensors fit inside a fighter’s shoulder pads. The direction and altitude of the sniper fire show up on a wrist display.

And because soldier-centric technology is developing so quickly, BBN has built the unit with a universal connector, to increase the odds that soldiers will be able to hook Boomerang Warrior to devices and displays yet to be invented.

“That’s the point,’’ BBN’s Sherman said. “This is for the future.’’

D.C. Denison can be reached at denison@globe.com.

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