Tracking the troops

A vision system that helps soldiers plan a route through the chaos of the battlefield will undergo tests on both sides of the Atlantic.


A vision system that helps soldiers plan a route through the chaos of the battlefield will undergo tests on both sides of the Atlantic.

The system, called Primordial Soldier, will provide soldiers with a real-time picture of where troops are in relation to each other and a digital rendering of the route they should follow.

It is about to undergo trials with US special forces and has been bought by the UK arm of MBDA Missiles. MBDA plans to carry out conceptual research on the system to learn how using such technology affects a soldier’s decision-making capability in the field.

Developed by US firm Primordial, the system uses a combination of commercial off-the-shelf hardware and its own patented software. Randy Milbert, Primordial’s president, hopes it will eventually be integrated into the US Army’s planned Future Force Warrior, an ambitious programme that will use a range of new technologies to create a lightweight combat system for soldiers.

Primordial Soldier uses a lightweight plexiglass display screen attached to the helmet that drops down in front of the eye. This NOMAD display, developed by Microvision, is red-tinted and reflects light directly onto the retina without impairing the eyesight – a great improvement on current systems, said Milbert.

The display screen is connected to a handheld computer and radio system supporting mesh networking that allows several soldiers to communicate with each other. It also includes an integrated GPS system for situational awareness.

Another piece of hardware is the ‘headtracker’, a cube that determines to a high level of accuracy the orientation of the soldier’s head, showing in which direction they are looking. ‘The head tracker is essential for properly overlaying the information in the head-mounted display,’ said Milbert. ‘As the head moves the information is updated instantly on the HUD to give an accurate representation of where all the units on the field are.’

An optional component of the system is the Rockwell Collins DRAGN dead-reckoning module, which provides soldiers with positional information when there is no GPS coverage. ‘A dead-reckoning module is essentially a step counter, which follows your steps and works out your relative position from your starting position. It is less accurate than GPS but very useful for working in caves or inside buildings,’ explained Milbert.

The most innovative aspect is the patented Ground Guidance software, which fuses road maps with aerial imagery to provide soldiers with automatic off-road navigation. In practice, a commander would click on a map on his PDA where he wanted the soldiers to go and the software would work out the best route for getting there. The route takes into account not only the distance travelled but also elevation, inclines and even terrain.

The commander can also demarcate an area that is out of bounds, such as a minefield, and the software will plan the route around it. Milbert said: ‘There is no other system out there like it. It is particularly useful for special forces as they are not always interested in the quickest route but may be looking for the route with the best coverage, for example. This takes all these factors into consideration.’

Other soldiers wearing the same system will appear on the soldier’s display screen as ‘friendly’. Milbert envisages that the system will be integrated in the future with UAVs that can continuously monitor the battlefield and update the system with real-time data that can be streamed to the display screen.