The FCS robot he covets is the Class 1, Block 0 UAV. Later the morning of the infantry exercise, it scoped Adobe Village from the sky. With a soldier controlling its movement by way of a Panasonic Toughbook, the craft captured high-resolution video of the assembled soldiers, a pair of porta-potties and me. It looked like a beer keg and sounded like a leaf blower. But the Task Force soldiers are excited about its potential. Unlike the Raven UAV, the small unmanned plane currently used by the Army for low-altitude recon, the Class 1, Block 0 is a helicopter and can hover in place from 10 to 200 feet off the ground -- in a narrow alley between buildings, outside a window looking in.
Drones have become common battlefield tools in the past decade but are typically controlled at the company or battalion level, which respectively have about 135 and 650 soldiers apiece. FCS wants tools like the UAV at the platoon (approximately 40 soldiers) and even squad (10 members) level. The vision is also to expand the range of applications. The Massachusetts-based company iRobot manufactures a PackBot currently deployed overseas, which the military uses primarily to scout for improvised explosive devices, while the SUGV, also made by iRobot, may one day lead infantry assaults like the one I witnessed. A single soldier can comfortably tote a SUGV, and the controller, copied almost directly from that of an Xbox game console, was designed to be intuitively easy for a young recruit to use.
A soldier drove up in a Humvee and parked in the middle of Adobe Village. Inside the truck was a suite of computer and communications gear that collects information from the SUGV, the drones and the rest of the battlefield nodes, displays it on a computer screen, and feeds it into the broader network. The point, after all, is not just for someone like Schaill to know that there are barbarians at the castle gate, but to share that information with everyone. FCS can't handle too much streaming video -- the system won't have enough bandwidth -- but still images can be captured and distributed, which soldiers say is a major step forward. The operator of a hovering drone who takes a picture of an insurgent entering a hideout can share it so that soldiers conducting the subsequent raid know exactly who they're looking for. A sensor that detects a biological threat can instantly alert everyone on the network.
A catchphrase of Army modernization is "every soldier a sensor." If soldiers observe a roadside bomb, they can post the coordinates to the network. Their locations, movements, text messages sent, and shots fired can be automatically recorded. In aggregate, the information streaming onto the network from hundreds of soldiers will give commanders an exceptionally accurate and up-to-the-second portrait of battlefield conditions. Schaill describes the creation of a "cognitive network across a 4,000-man brigade." So it's not that FCS will somehow turn the grunts of the past into autonomous killing machines -- rather, they will become the grunts of the future, fighters with the pluck of American GIs and the hive mind of the Borg.single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.