Lance Cpl. Cody Hillis, with 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, patrols in Afghanistan's Sangin district last year. The Marine Corps is looking to replace its conductive whip antennas. (Sgt. Logan Pierce / Marine Corps)
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One company believes it hasdeveloped a new radio antenna that performs as well as or better than current models used by Marines while preventing electrocution deaths.
Communications on the battlefield are critical, but linking units across long distances requires whip antennas that are 6 to 10 feet long. The same devices needed to coordinate movements and fire support, or call for resupply and medical evacuation, can be deadly to Marines using them on the ground or in vehicle turrets. If they come in contact with low-hanging power lines, their all-metal construction can conduct fatal amounts of electricity.
Since 2003, at least 10 Marines have been electrocuted due to contact with power lines, including six in 2012, according to data collected by the Naval Safety Centers. So far this year, there are no reported incidents of electrocution due to antenna contact with power lines.
California-based United Analytics Corp. has developed a “body worn” antenna that is a small, flat, flexible panel, which it says performs as well or better than current antennas without rising from a Marine’s body. Called Syntenna, it can fit on a pack, or be worn on or even under one’s body armor or clothing, making it discreet — another advantage. It measures less than a foot square, making it comfortable and highly concealable, the company says.
The antenna could meet the Marine Corps’ needs. Officials at Marine Corps Systems Command are searching for alternatives to conductive whip antennas. They turned to the defense industry last year, asking manufacturers for products that could avoid electrocution without sacrificing performance.
United Analytics’ antenna works by using an operator’s body as an extension of the antenna, in contrast with standard antennas whose performance is degraded by interference with objects, including bodies and especially hydration packs. A secondary benefit, according to Larry Tichauer, an engineer with the company, is that because it is discreet, enemy forces will find it difficult to target radio or IED-jammer operators.
The enemy, recognizing them as critical members of any unit, can target them in an effort to create chaos. And in jungle operations, the antenna is less likely to get hooked on plants.
Reconnaissance Marines based at Camp Pendleton, Calif., have tested the antenna informally during training, according to Tichauer. He says they gave it positive marks because it is rugged, didn’t break on high-altitude, low-opening jumps or whistle as it passed through the air.
It can even take a round or shrapnel and continue working so long as the cable connecting it to a radio or jammer continues to function.
The antenna currently costs about $399 and the price would be lower if bought in bulk by a service, Tichauer said. Because the system is “plug-and-play,” it should work with most, if not all, current radios and jammers by connection through a coaxial cable.