Sensors for Military Maneuvers

E-mail Melanie Martella

Two stories caught my attention this week, both of them concerning warfighters. The first was the news (seen at Gizmodo) that the U.S. Army had been visiting with the fine folks at Apple to discuss handheld technologies for the troops in the field and the second was the use of cheap motion sensors (and very clever software) to track those same troops when GPS signals aren't available. Both stories are interesting for their own sakes but they also reflect how software and sensors are incorporated into a wider variety of devices.

The release issued on the U.S. Army's official Web site can be found here. Briefly, the Army's research and development folks met with the people at Apple to assess some of Apple's commercial products for military use as well as apply Apple's expertise to improve their non-commercial devices. The key quote for me is this one:

"Apple technologies offer unique and proven solutions with intuitive designs that allow users to learn quickly without a training manual," said Ron Szymanski, CERDEC's lead computer scientist on the project. "The Army would like to leverage Apple's experience when designing military applications."

If we take the iPhone in particular, the sensors incorporated into the device are critical to its use. However, it's the coupling of sensors with software that creates the iPhone's user-friendly interface and makes it so easy and intuitive to use. Which is a boon if you don't want to lug a manual with you like, say, a warfighter. In a chaotic environment, the easier a device is to use, the better—and the more likely it is to be used.

The second story from New Scientist, discusses a research project undertaken by Tessella, an English R&D firm. The article, "Motion sensors coud track troops when GPS cuts out", describes how Tessella researchers are coupling cheap MEMS accelerometers and gyros with software to provide position sensing for troops. This would serve to augment the position sensing provided by GPS which, alas, can be blocked by tunnels, buildings, trees, and jamming equipment. The IMU (not what the article called it, but multiple accelerometers and gyroscopes all used to sense inertial motion sounds pretty much like an IMU to me) can be worn on the warfighter's ankle and used to provide position relative to some last known location.

MEMS motion sensors are being incorporated into an increasingly diverse range of devices but the sensors are only part of the puzzle; the software that uses the sensor readings to generate the desired behavior is just as important. It's not a coincidence that the manufacturers of MEMS motion sensors are developing devices that have some of the motion sensing algorithms built in to the sensor. I suspect that we'll see an explosion of motion-sensor-enabled products as the sensors mature and their users gain expertise. I can't wait to see what they come up with.

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