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App could allow troops to call in airstrikes

Oct. 16, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Laura Major of Draper Laboratory holds an Android device with the airstrike app open.
Laura Major of Draper Laboratory holds an Android device with the airstrike app open. (Draper Laboratory)
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In the near future, troops on the battlefield could call in airstrikes not with a radio or laptop, but a smartphone.

Draper Laboratory of Cambridge, Mass., is working with the Air Force Research Laboratory in Rome, N.Y., on a new program called the Android Terminal Assault Kit, or ATAK, that it said will transform the way troops request air support.

The application will allow troops in the field to open a map and, with a few screen taps, label the locations of enemy troops, civilians, friendly forces and potential evacuation points, and then securely transmit the data to inbound pilots or operations centers.

Laura Major, the group leader at Draper overseeing the project, said in an Oct. 9 interview that this program will be quicker and more intuitive in the heat of battle than calling in airstrike information on a laptop.

“It’s one thing for a user behind a desk in a climate-controlled office to toggle back and forth between 10 windows, deal with system crashes, and wait 60 seconds for booting up,” Major said. “It’s another thing to deal with those issues while someone is shooting at you or if you’re jumping out of a plane. That’s where ATAK comes in.”

When the war in Afghanistan started, Draper said in a news release, troops used global positioning system receivers to call in airstrikes and kept information in their heads on the location of friendly forces and civilians and on the status of nearby aircraft. This increased the risk of miscommunication and memory errors, Draper said.

The military later provided laptops for troops to use outside the wire, but Draper said some troops didn’t bring them on missions because their software was better suited for ops centers, and they emitted too much light at night.

As troops designate points on ATAK’s map as enemy targets, friendly forces or civilians, Major said, they can say whether the points are artillery, tanks or a church or school, for example.

The program will then automatically generate detailed information, such as grid coordinates and elevation, that are crucial for an airstrike.

And to make sure troops aren’t about to call in an airstrike on themselves, or on a hostile force that is dangerously close to their position, ATAK will then display that information with hostile forces in red, and friendly forces in blue, including distance and bearing to the closest friendly force.

If something doesn’t look right in that targeting report or the strike looks too dangerous, the troops will know not to proceed.

Draper said this “whiteboarding” capability will reduce the need to discuss target information over the radio during a battle.

Major said the ATAK app will also be able to display live video feeds from Predator drones or other unmanned aerial vehicles. PAR Government Systems in Rome, N.Y., is helping develop the video player part of the app.

She said ATAK has been used on a handful of special forces missions, and the input helped Draper refine the map’s design and the app’s targeting systems.

She would not say which special forces units have used ATAK but said they are across multiple services.

She hopes the app will be rolled out to high-priority units within special operations next year.

Major said Draper doesn’t plan to create a version of ATAK for the iPhone. Draper chose the Android OS because its security was better, she said, and because it was easier to develop for.

Troops using ATAK plug their Android devices into their tactical radios to securely transmit data over military networks, Major said.

“We designed the system so that it would integrate with military radios and networks that are available today,” Major said. “We didn’t want to target something five to 10 years out, when today’s solution is to use tactical radios.”

And Major said her company has a special filter troops can put over the Android’s screen at night to cut down on light emissions that could betray troops’ location to the enemy.

Major said Draper’s contract with the Air Force Research Laboratory for this project is worth several million dollars, but would not say exactly how much.

Air Force Research Laboratory was unavailable for comment by press time.

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