In the defense market, research and development is critical for success. Militaries around the world are becoming increasingly aggressive in seeking new technologies and innovations that they hope will give them an advantage on the battlefield.
But as we all know, that battlefield is changing. Just as digital transformations are changing how people think about commercial and consumer products, the same progress and innovations are shaping the future of global security. In a speech last year at Stanford University, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter warned that the same Silicon Valley products that have enabled “boundless transformation” for consumers have also presented “a degree of risk to the businesses, governments, militaries and individual people who rely on them every day…making it easier, cheaper, and safer to threaten them.”
Then he posed the following question: With a growing reliance on technology that adversaries are eager to exploit, how do we protect the very freedom and opportunity that technology enables for “our country, our future, our children [and] our people?”
His answer: Ongoing collaboration between government and industry, particularly in the area of research and development. Citing a long tradition of R&D partnerships spanning 75 years – from the Manhattan Project to the National Science Foundation grant that helped birth the first Google search algorithm – he renewed the government’s commitment to partnerships with the market’s most innovative minds.
The Pentagon’s tradition of collaboration continues with DoD’s establishment of the Defense Innovation Unit-Experimental, or DIUx, located in Cambridge, Mass. Headed by a top researcher from MIT, it is the second DIUx location in the country, joining a Silicon Valley facility that was established last year. As noted by Secretary Carter, MIT and Cambridge have long been epicenters of defense and industry collaboration.
Thales is among many companies that collaborate through MIT. In 2015, Thales launched Thales xPlor at the MIT Media Lab, establishing a strategic function for engaging with the U.S. start-up and academic ecosystem to develop new, innovative solutions. As proof-of-concept, Thales simultaneously unveiled DragonFly, a product rooted in the company’s helmet-mounted displays for the military.
This type of R&D collaboration is not only vital for the government, but is also critical to the success of Thales. Across the company’s various markets, Thales directs nearly 20 percent of its sales to R&D efforts, and employs more than 22,000 scientists and engineers worldwide. Globally, Thales holds more than 15,000 patents.
There is no mistaking Thales’ commitment to R&D, which is a vital part of its mission to improve the digital future of its customers. Thalescontinues to align R&D efforts with disruptive technology trends to seek synergies with current defense applications.
With technology becoming more mobile, personal and social, Thales is shaping today’s digital environment through the development of augmented reality (AR) capabilities.
According to some analysts, AR is rapidly becoming one of the most important enterprise-level technologies. PwC recently noted that in a DHL pilot project last year, warehouse workers equipped with AR-enabled smartglasses committed fewer errors and achieved a 25 percent increase in efficiency. In another example, Boeing factory trainees assembling a mock airplane were 30 percent faster and 90 percent more accurate using AR-animated instructions on tablets versus those using PDF documents.
In the defense market, innovators predict that virtual reality will one day enable portable command centers, and that warfare simulations will increasingly become more like the consumer market’s AR-enabled videogames. In fact, the U.S. Army is developing a warfare simulator – the “Future Holistic Training Environment Live Synthetic” program – that can be remotely accessed to provide realistic AR combat training virtually anywhere.
Thales has already deployed AR solutions for the defense aviation market. Among these are TopOwl, a helmet-mounted display that becomes a vital extension of a pilot’s eyes, movements and actions. Since its development ten years ago, it has joined the pantheon of critical military systems that are battle-proven every day in areas of operation around the world.
Hailed by pilots for its modular design, comfort, and ease of use, TopOwl is a binocular helmet-mounted display and sight, featuring visor projection of flight control symbology, plus images from image intensifiers and forward-looking infrared sensors.
First tested on French Tiger helicopters, today U.S. Army, Navy and Marine attack and transport helicopter crews use TopOwl as their main flight control instrument. It provides critical information to a pilot without the need to look down at the instrument panel – a key element to ensuring flight safety during tactical missions.
In 2009, TopOwl systems were deployed for the U.S. Navy on Hueys aboard the U.S.S. Bainbridge during the rescue of Maersk Alabama captain Richard Phillips from pirates off the coast of Somalia. They were also on board helicopters deployed with Marine Expeditionary Units in Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, and with Marine Expeditionary Force operations as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Designed by pilots, for pilots, TopOwl is the result of more than twenty years of Thales experience in the helmet mounted sight display field for rotor and fixed-wing aircraft.
Thales’ Scorpion, the world’s only full-color helmet-mounted display system, is another leap forward in AR technology for the warfighter. Scorpion provides full-color symbology and video for day and night missions, in addition to targeting, sensor video, and Degraded Visual Environment (DVE) imagery, giving pilots considerably improved situational awareness and effectiveness. It decreases combat pilot workload, facilitates crew exchange during the most critical phases of the mission, and improves safety and security. Scorpion utilizes the unique and patented Hybrid Optical based Inertial Tracking (HOBiT) system, which ensures the highest accuracy and reliability with minimal intrusion into the cockpit.
What today is available only in the sky will soon be available on the ground as well. Thales’ Communication Enabled Networked Tactical Augmented Reality (CENTAuR) system – a ground-based helmet display – will provide operators with unsurpassed situational awareness and capabilities that, until now, have only been available to aviators.
Based on much of the R&D that led to TopOwl and Scorpion, this networked hands-free, heads-up position tracking technology provides operators with blue and red force identification, target acquisition, and image transmission enabled by the Soldier Radio Waveform (SRW) and other wideband mesh networks.
In addition to displaying maps and other fixed data, CENTAuR’s sensors track body and helmet movements and orientation. This stabilizes target, mission, and navigation symbols so they remain earth-referenced as helmet orientation and position change – even in GPS-denied environments.
It was not so long ago that AR-enabled heads-up helmet displays were the stuff of science fiction, but with Thales technologies they have become vital tools for the modern warfighter. And helmets are just the beginning.
Command, Control and Communications
In 1947, when the Bell telephone company launched America’s first commercial radio system, the world could hardly imagine that one day personal communication would be dominated by devices like smartphones, which would drive major societal and technological disruptions through ubiquitous connectivity.
Similarly, operators in World War II could scarcely know that the combined communications power of three-man radio “shacks” would one day be surpassed in capability and power by digital, hand-held radios.
But of course, that’s exactly what happened, and the evolution to make battlefield communications more effective and mobile continues to this day. When first fielded in 2000, Thales’ Multiband Inter/Intra Team Radio (MBITR) replaced over 60 pounds of multiple radios with a single handheld unit – weighing less than two pounds. Still the smallest, lightest, and most widely-fielded tactical handheld radio covering the 30-512 MHz frequency range, MBITRs today serve the U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Federal agencies and allied forces around the world.
The latest iteration, the MBITR 2, represents the best the market has to offer in terms of point-to-point communications, and remains the only two-channel software-defined radio in the marketplace, utilized by more than 50 countries.
In response to the demands of an increasingly networked battlefield, Thales continues to develop capabilities for mobile, ad-hoc networks and beyond line-of-sight communications. Thales’ SYNAPS radio network is the next evolution in communications for collaborative combat. Launched at Eurosatory this year, SYNAPS is a new broadband tactical software-defined radio family designed to support the digital transformation of battlespace networks. In addition to hierarchical communications, SYNAPS provides a unique collaborative combat capability based on real-time horizontal communications between all units on the ground.
Another glimpse into the future of battlefield communications comes from Tampa Microwave, Inc., a subsidiary of Thales. Tampa Microwave provides portable SATCOM terminals, VSATs, microwave modules, and communications equipment to military and commercial customers. These systems represent the next-generation of what is possible for military communications through enabling command-linked, infrastructure agnostic networks.
Transforming Communications for the Warfighter
Perhaps the most dramatic and obvious trend tying these solutions together is the evolution of sophisticated communications technologies toward ever-shrinking and increasingly portable platforms. With digitization, transforming room-sized or vehicle-mounted systems into handheld or backpack-sized units, the warfighter gains unprecedented levels of mobility without sacrificing situational awareness.
Like others called upon to innovate on behalf of commercial and military customers, Thales continues to undertake valuable R&D that will shape tomorrow’s digital environment.
With a technology foundation in technologies including AR and digital communications, Thales is committed to the next leap forward in situational awareness applications. Geo-localization and next generation GPS will enable more effective operational networks, and when combined with increases in computing power, will give troops on the battlefield even greater levels of tactical awareness.
For its part, Thales continues to collaborate at the heart of the defense industry’s innovation ecosystem. By building partnerships with the industrial and scientific communities, we are enhancing synergies among industrial groups, innovation-driven companies and training and research institutions.
Thales will also continue to strengthen its ties to the academic world via PhD programs and support for university chairs. Today, Thales supports 220 PhD students worldwide who work on subjects directly connected to the technical challenges associated with product development.
In the development of enhanced AR solutions and other capabilities for defense transformation, the demand for this collective brainpower will remain. Driven by the increasing prevalence of asymmetric and urban warfare, the Pentagon and other defense organizations will continue to seek a combat edge in environments that often include “3D urban structures involving air-ground forces,” according to a 2011 report by the U.S. Navy.
Using AR to improve situational awareness in this environment, say experts, is similar to the experience broadcast networks give TV viewers with the insertion of a digital first-down line during NFL football games. According to researchers at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory: “Seeing the line as play unfold gives viewers a much greater awareness of the meaning of the play.” That greater awareness should be the goal of the defense industry’s work toward digital transformation as well. The warfighter deserves nothing less.
- Defense transformation and AR: http://www.defense.gov/News/Speeches/Speech-View/Article/606666/drell-lecture-rewiring-the-pentagon-charting-a-new-path-on-innovation-and-cyber
- Augmented reality/PwC/DHL and Boeing: http://www.pwc.com/us/en/technology-forecast/augmented-reality/augmented-reality-road-ahead.html
- AR simulators in U.S. Army, command centers: http://www.trendhunter.com/trends/warfare-simulator
- First-down line quote, USN report http://www.nrl.navy.mil/itd/imda/sites/www.nrl.navy.mil.itd.imda/files/pdfs/2011_Springer_MilitaryAR.pdf