A new technology in development by the army would allow troops to 'see' a threat below ground using VR goggles or a mobile tablet.

Troops hunting hidden bombs or IEDs by hand often rely on upgraded metal detectors or a version of that technologystrapped to a ground robot. They must sweep the areas at a near-uniform speed and pattern and listen carefully for the right tone to sound to know if something is under the sand or in that pile of trash.

Researchers at the Army’sCommunications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center are in initial stages of developing technologythat will allow troops to strap on virtual reality goggles or monitor a tablet screen to see where the sensor detects a threat.

The novel handheld mine detection recently on display at CERDEC’s testing center in Fort Belvoir, Virginia included a soldier waving the detector over sand and the sensor then “painting” a digital picture on a nearby screen of what lies beneath the sand lane.

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“This gives us the opportunity to see signatures in the ground without taking away situational awareness,” said Sgt. 1st Class Jared Huffstickler, a combat engineer who is assigned to the counter mine division of CERDEC’s Night Vision and Electronic Sensors Directorate, to help test new bomb detection gear.

Chris Marshall, a scientist at the countermine division, said the larger goals of the project are to merge a variety of detection devices into one. Currently soldiers must use different sensors for different threats. But another aim of the program is to provide better information to bomb techs and distance them even farther from the threat.

The technologies they are developing can be added to existing detectors and are “modular” so they can also be put on robotic detectors from ground robots to, potentially, aerial drones.

The digital image that comes on screen is color-coded; darker colors from black to blue mean nothing’s there while brighter reds and yellows show a potential threat.

But the information doesn’t stop at the color swath. The system can help capture the shape of the object and with the correct algorithms, kick in radar technologies that can then define the shape of the object, Marshall said.

“The radar can show the shape of a mine instead of a circle and the soldier can use that information to determine if it is a threat, something that needs to be remedied,” Marshall said.

The system receiving all the data can also monitor the position of the mine detector and geolocate threats.

Sgt. 1st Class Jeremiah Galyon, the Non-Commissioned Officer-in-Charge at CERDEC’s Night Vision and Electronic Sensors Directorate , told attendees that once geolocation and data such as shape and size are gathered, that information can then be shared in the network so any bomb tech coming upon the area would have it at their disposal.

This creates a virtual map of the ground in that area – a bomb tech’s dream for navigating threats.

“So, imagine walking down the road with a heads-up goggle. You don’t see dirt, you see everything your counterpart has done up there so you basically come, ready to go, in a couple of minutes,” Marshall said.

It’s far off from what many in the explosive ordnance disposal field have seen for much of their careers – sticks with rags tied to them marking potential threats that they or their robots must then inspect.

Huffstickler noted that the device is also good for training soldiers. Currently soldiers must use a specific speed and pattern as they sweep for systems to pick up threats. With the visual indicator soldiers can see if they are hitting the right speed and distance as they sweep.

But, Marshall said, the system could also help equipment adapt to people by recognizing the pattern and speed a soldier is using it and then adjusting its detection models to fit the soldier.

It could also notice if a soldier’s pattern is becoming erratic, a signal that maybe the soldier is getting fatigued and needs to switch out to avoid making an error.

Those are early-stage items. As situations dictate the need for several types of capabilities, soldier will be able to apply the tech as needed.

The next step, Farrell said, would be for a soldier in a protected area near the threat site to use two or more robots with this sensor technology to sweep an area for data.

Then the soldier could safely analyze the data and decide the next steps from a distance.

Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.

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