WASHINGTON, May 19, 2017 — Self-driving boats, helmets that send instant messages and aircraft systems that navigate an airplane when GPS fails were just a few of the dozens of new warfighter technologies the Defense Department showcased yesterday in the Pentagon courtyard during its second biennial Lab Day.
The event featured engineering teams from the Air Force, Army, Navy and defense-affiliated private firms, each of whom manned a booth and presented a new technical system it is developing on behalf of U.S. military operations across the globe.
An array of new self-driving vehicles were among this year’s displays. One of these was a small boat, the Port Improvement via Exigent Repair system, designed to enter a damaged harbor with cameras and sonar to gather data on the structures and water depth. Human operators can quickly devise a repair plan and restore the harbor not only in less time, but with less risk of injury to the human divers.
Safeguarding Divers’ Lives
“We can narrow down amounts of work a human dive team will have to do, and we’ll identify any possible dangers or hazards that the team might run into,” said Jonathan Marshall, a research engineer with the Army Corps of Engineers’ Engineer Research and Development Center, who developed the vessel.
An ERDC-built unmanned aerial vehicle was also at the event. Ricky Massaro, another ERDC engineer, said that the Army’s 101st Airborne Division had received a model and conducted successful aerial mapping flights with it. The aircraft has cameras optimized for viewing terrain, topography, and moving objects.
“It allows the soldiers to create their own maps,” he said.
Many aerial drones have similar camera functions. But Massaro said that this aircraft, unlike a conventional drone, does not require a human controller. Human operators enter a flight plan into its navigation system pre-flight, and it follows the route on its own, he said.
The Navy is also developing unmanned ground-based vehicles. And the Naval Air Canter Warcraft Division exhibited a vehicle that is designed to drive itself atop an aircraft carrier. The vehicle detects obstacles in its way and independently stops or maneuvers around them. It can also determine if it is too close to the deck’s edge and reverse course before falling overboard.
“An aircraft carrier is a very busy and very compact environment. A rover is going to need special capabilities to be ready for it,” said Kyle Hart, a NAWCAD engineer. As he spoke, the vehicle made circles around him and attendees and paused as soon as someone crossed its path.
Other exhibitors showcased breakthroughs in computer systems, including one computer chip that signifies a possibly major step toward true artificial intelligence. The chip, known as TrueNorth and developed by IBM with support from defense researchers, resembles the human brain’s own neurons and enables a computer to calculate more functions simultaneously, adapt to new information, and solve more complex problems than even the most powerful conventional computers could take on.
Artificial intelligence is a major area of interest among all of the world’s militaries, said Dr. Qing Wu, principal electronics engineer at AFRL. He said that many governments are trying to develop computer systems that can process more data, more quickly, since these systems would be very useful tools for military strategists.
“Our goal is to get a technical advantage. All the major powers are racing to get in an advantage in artificial intelligence technology,” he said. “What we’re pushing for is a hardware that runs better software. We could process more data, and human operators could make decisions better and faster when teamed up with these more-intelligent machines.”
Mark Smearcheck, another AFRL electronics engineer, exhibited “visionated navigation system” for aircraft. The system uses the aircraft’s navigational box and sensors on the aircraft’s surface to determine location and chart a course to the destination independently of GPS. Smearcheck said that it’s important that pilots have a backup option for when their GPS systems fail.
“GPS is a great enabling technology that gives the Air Force the precision it’s known for. But what do they do when they don’t have a GPS signal? We need to be sure that they have that precision when GPS isn’t available,” he said.
Another exhibit featured an Army-designed smart helmet that receives and sends video and also relays spoken words as visible text messages. The helmet is meant to help commanding officers and subordinates communicate clearly to each other amid the confusion and noise of a combat area, according to Heidi Buck, director of the Army’s Battlespace Exploitation of Mixed Reality Lab, where the helmet was engineered.
“A gunner can see the officer’s commands instead of just hearing them. And the officer can see what the gunner is seeing,” she said. The helmet might also go into use in basic training, she added: A wearer could see virtual targets transposed into his or her real-life field of vision.
A typical space satellite can be 20 to 30 feet long and weigh many tons. But the Air Force and Navy are increasingly utilizing “nanosatellites,” which each measure just five feet or less and operate in groups to cover a wider area more efficiently. Jason Bousquet, Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command, presented a model of the nanosatellites that his command is researching and developing.
“You could fit 50 to 60 or more on a rocket and the rocket spits them out one at a time,” he said. “And, if your capabilities can be distributed into 10 nanosatellites, you could do a lot more with them at a lower cost than you might with one big conventional satellite.”
DoD hosted its first Lab Day in 2015. Each Lab Day serves as an outreach that highlights landmark research contributions from engineers across the defense sector. The audiences consist of members of Congress, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics high-school students, members of the media and special guests.