Reality check

UK soldiers involved in urban warfare will gain an enhanced view of the battle zone using LCD displays overlaid with tactical 3D computer graphics.

Vital information, such as the names of roads, the presence of friendly or enemy forces, or the location of safe houses or religiously sensitive buildings, could be highlighted over each soldier’s view of the battlefield via an 8in chest-mounted LCD touch-screen, or helmet display. Commanders in the control room could also gain a better understanding of the terrain and co-ordinate soldiers remotely on the battlefield using 3D digital maps or binoculars.

BT and the MoD have been developing the ‘mixed-reality’ technology for the military since October 2003. Andrew Gower, BT project manager and principal investigator, said that it is essential in modern warfare to have an enhanced perception of unfamiliar terrain. ‘The system is in a true sense augmenting the soldier’s reality. It is dynamic and takes into account where the soldier is and what he’s looking at. It will allow the soldier to interact fully with the environment.’

UK emergency services may also have access to the technology within the next few years, including police firearms teams, fire fighters and search and rescue crews. The system could even be used by civil or electronics engineers when, for example, they require an augmented view of a fault in anything from a bridge to a phone line.

Mixed reality has been used in fighter planes for up to 10 years, Gower said. ‘But it is bringing it down to the individual soldier and commander that we’re developing at the moment.’

One problem for military application is that too much information could add confusion, or block a soldier’s vision. A typical battlefield has millions of objects within it, but the system uses intelligent filters to determine what information is necessary for the soldier to know.

The chest-mounted LCD screen is the cheapest and most reliable display hardware, while head-mounted screens tend to be less robust, Gower said. But the team is also developing simpler equipment, such as peripheral-vision LCD screens within goggles, surround-sound audio messages designed to indicate the direction of a threat, warning sounds, and vibrating flak-jackets, all aiming to alert the soldier to information, or even danger, out of his field of vision. Sensors mounted on the soldier could provide a 360-degree view.

Unlike similar US military projects, the team claim to be using lightweight, off-the-shelf components, rather than expensive ‘bespoke’ hardware.

Devices such as a digital compass, accelerometer and GPS can be used to determine the soldier’s position and orientation, but can be too slow on their own in a rapidly moving battlefield, Gower said. So the researchers are attempting to combine sensor information with visual-recognition technology that can hunt for key areas and identify objects via a video camera mounted on the individual soldier. ‘It’s a difficult nut to crack. It can be done, but there is still a lot of work to be perfect,’ Gower said.

The MoD and BT Exact, BT’s research, technology and IT division, are due to begin testing the system in three months.

BT Exact is also developing technology to monitor the health and wellbeing of personnel from control rooms; tactile interfaces to help pilots in poor visibility; and autonomous battlefield software. The research is part of the MoD’s Defence Information Fusion Defence Technology Centre (DTC), which also involves prime contractor General Dynamics, Qinetiq and several UK universities.

The team is collaborating with the Future Integrated Soldier Technology (FIST) programme, which is due to be applied to infantry in the field by 2009.

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