- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 11, 2003

Dennis Birch compares the U.S. soldier to a Christmas tree: Whenever improvements in technology help lighten a soldier’s load, someone else wants to hang on a new piece of gear like an ornament.

The result is “100 pounds of great ideas hanging off him in all different directions,” Mr. Birch said.

So in their prototype for a high-tech uniform of the future, researchers at the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Mass., have shaken all gear from the soldier and started from scratch.

In the researchers’ designs, soldiers of 2011 will step into wired uniforms that incorporate all the equipment they need. The uniforms will monitor vital signs and plug them into a massive network of satellites, unmanned planes and robotic vehicles.

“The idea is to make it an integrated system of systems, so there aren’t decisions that need to be made on what lifesaving equipment you have with you or not,” said Mr. Birch, who is with the Army center’s Objective Force Warrior technical program.

When dressing for battle in the “Scorpion ensemble,” soldiers will don no more than 50 pounds, making them much more mobile than today’s troops, who carry up to 120 pounds of gear, Mr. Birch said.

The ensemble will plug the soldier into the military’s planned Future Combat System, for which the Pentagon recently earmarked $15 billion to develop.

That system envisions lighter tanks, powerful computer networks and larger fleets of remote-controlled airplanes and robotic ground vehicles. The first battalion could field the system by late 2010 — about when the Scorpion ensemble would be ready to plug human soldiers into the network.

As envisioned, soldiers will wear an undershirt netted with sensors that monitor heart rate, body temperature and respiration.

Then comes a uniform with built-in tourniquets that one day might be tightened and loosened remotely. Body armor is built into a load carriage that holds water, ammunition, batteries and circuits to keep the soldier plugged into the network.

The most high-tech component will be the helmet, with tiny, built-in cameras to spot enemies lurking in the dark or concealed by bushes. The camera images will appear on semitransparent screens attached to their helmets.

Every soldier will eventually be able to view thermal images from uncooled infrared cameras, which are only in limited use today. Firefighters have been using similar cameras to see through smoke, and some Cadillacs use them to see through fog.

These cameras “provide much less resolution (than standard night vision), but much better target contrast,” said A. Fenner Milton, director of the night-vision lab at Fort Belvoir, Va.

“So if you’re looking for a soldier behind a tree, or trying to avoid an ambush, or going into an environment where there is no ambient light, like inside a building or a cave, the infrared is preferred,” Mr. Milton said.

Soldiers who get lost — a problem in Iraq and other wars — will view maps, global-positioning coordinates and other data about their location. The same sort of data could be used to call in air strikes. Images from drones, robotic vehicles or other members of the unit also may appear onscreen.

The headgear will contain a laser-engagement system to identify friends and foes — and serve as a “laser tag” training device, Mr. Birch said.

The way the soldier will interact with the system is still under development. Voice activation is a goal, but difficult because of varying accents. A control panel built into the sleeve is also being considered, Mr. Birch said.

The goal is to give soldiers important information without overloading them. “They have enough distractions already when they’re in the middle of a battle,” Mr. Birch said.

The Scorpion ensemble will have an open architecture so new devices can be swapped as technology advances, Mr. Birch said. Concepts on the drawing board include chameleonlike camouflage that mimics surroundings to make a soldier almost invisible.

Even the gun is undergoing a makeover.

Within five years, the XM29 should be ready for combat. The weapon will fire the same bullets as today’s M16s and M4s, but will also launch programmable “air bursting” grenades that explode in the air to rain shrapnel on an enemy or pierce upper-floor windows.

The same gun could fire nonlethal projectiles — perhaps nets — to incapacitate enemies, said Frank Misurelli, a spokesman for the Army’s Picatinny Arsenal.

For soldiers who need heavier firepower, several corporate, military and university labs are developing robotic vehicles that could launch mortars or other weapons, serve as remote eyes and ears, or simply haul gear.

Smart land mines would protect troops’ flanks under one project at the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The mines, connected wirelessly, could hop from the ground to fill voids if the minefield is breached.

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, a government-sponsored lab that opened last month, research could lead to external skeletons carrying artificial muscles that would make soldiers faster and stronger, said Paula Hammond, a research team leader.

Other research could lead to lightweight uniforms that close pores between fibers to block out chemical weapons, or fibers that stiffen to form a cast or splint on a broken bone.

“You can hobble away rather than just lay with your broken leg until someone finds you and finishes you off,” Miss Hammond said.

Another project at MIT envisions thin films that would monitor a soldier’s breath for exposure to toxins, then signal the system to release the appropriate medicine, according to Miss Hammond.

Sensors one day could show exactly where wounds are, said Dr. Richard Satava, a DARPA program manager. In a project Dr. Satava is developing, doctors could pull up the file of a wounded soldier and rehearse surgery on a hologram rendered from computed tomography images — also known as CAT scans — of the soldier’s body.

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