As a Senior Consultant Engineer at Roke with over 25 years of engineering consultancy and product development experience, Mark was chosen as the Design Authority for the Dismounted Close Combat Sensors (DCCS) programme. He is a Chartered Engineer (CEng) and Member of the Institution of Engineering and Technology (MIET) with a degree in Electronic Engineering. In his current role he specialises in communications systems engineering and technical leadership across commercial, defence and national security domains.
With the front line likely to move into the urban environment, a breakthrough in wearable sensor technology works alongside GPS to promise robust situational awareness.
The disadvantages of Global Positioning System (GPS) technology and the loss of satellite signals within buildings and underground are well known. This is particularly pertinent when it hinders the shared situational awareness that is so vital for operational effectiveness on the front line. For this reason, a clear need has evolved for a GPS-independent navigational system to support action both in and out of combat, and to protect soldiers from friendly fire, or ‘blue-on-blue’ incidents. Thanks to a recent Ministry of Defence (MOD) programme yielding an impressive result, we are now on the brink of something exciting. In the next few years the UK’s dismounted soldier is set to be equipped with an integrated sensor system that enhances the recognised Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) picture – providing greater local and shared situational awareness whilst improving overall combat effectiveness, even in the urban environment.
The operational landscape
Warfare is moving into urban environments and underground, where GPS cannot function.
Over the last two decades, the operational landscape has changed significantly and deployments are increasingly set to be played-out in towns and cities. Indeed, the MOD’s report ‘Strategic Trends Programme – Future Operating Environment 2035’ recognises that “projecting military power into an urban environment will remain fraught with difficulties” as “a range of state and non-state actors may deny our freedom to operate in highly congested environments.”
To enable operational effectiveness in such a complex, dense and high intensity situation there is a clear need for tactical commanders to have speedy access to reliable intelligence – including location. GPS technologies with their many advantages are therefore relied upon to provide location and navigation information in 3D. Not only does this support situational awareness but also enhances a wide range of operational capabilities, including the synchronisation of systems and networks, navigational support and weapon guidance systems. However, this growing reliance on positioning data from satellite networks comes at a time when the vulnerabilities and limitations of GPS are becoming increasingly apparent.
Why GPS alone doesn’t cut it
GPS provides vital situational awareness in the modern military setting.
A reliance on satellite signals makes GPS especially susceptible to interruption. In addition to solar activity and signal reflection causing unpredictable GPS behaviour, a particular challenge in urban environments is complete signal blockage within buildings, tunnels and wooded areas. Deliberate jamming of the GPS signal is another growing problem, where a device emitting a strong electromagnetic signal interferes with the reception of satellite signals by the tracking devices. These jammers can be easily acquired despite being illegal in most developed countries. While in some cases these may be deployed by a determined adversary, in many cases civilian usage can unintentionally affect battlefield missions and military training programmes. Whatever the motivation, the provision of anti-GPS jamming equipment is high on the list of military priorities.
When GPS is lost, the results can be catastrophic. It is not hard to imagine the consequences of guided weapons firing with diminished accuracy, for example. This is just one illustration, yet a lack of accurate location data would impact a range of critical missions and activities including reconnaissance, tactical manoeuvre, Command and Control and accurate targeting. Overall operational effectiveness would therefore be reduced, while increasing probability of blue-on-blue incidents, collateral damage and the overall vulnerability of friendly forces.
Lost GPS signal? Not a problem
It is an undeniable fact that GPS systems offer benefits such as accurate 3D positioning and global coverage, but it falls short of addressing the stringent needs of urban operations. While the military works to strengthen equipment encryption and protect against deliberate jamming, the race is on to develop a comparable and robust alternative that can also be used in buildings and underground.
Over the past three years a team comprising the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl), Roke Manor Research (Roke), QinetiQ and SEA set out to tackle this and other issues through the Dismounted Close Combat Sensors (DCCS) programme. Known as Team Prometheus, they have now achieved a break-through with the successful demonstration of new wearable sensor technology. The DCCS programme has given rise to an open system architecture in line with the developing Generic Soldier Architecture (GSA), to allow for the integration of multiple sensor-based subsystems including those using acoustic, visual, thermal and RF signals. This experimental system enables navigation independent of reliable satellite connectivity and can also automatically detect threats and enable the sharing of this information between individuals.
How it works
DCCS is expected to go into service in the 2020s, giving our Armed Forces a battle-winning edge. Re-packaging off-the-shelf technology could allow DCCS to look like this.
When the GPS signal is lost, high performance miniature inertial sensors and accelerometers within the DCCS equipment determine the velocity and orientation of a user from their motion. Working from the last known position and orientation (defined by GPS or manually entered), this information can then be used to determine position during periods when GPS is unavailable. However, even state-of-the-art portable sensors exhibit levels of drift and inaccuracy far too high to be useful alone. The DCCS system therefore incorporates a helmet-mounted visual tracking system which, by the tracking of detected features such as a door or window frame, greatly improves the accuracy of the estimated position.
For troops armed with location data, DCCS can also provide an impressive array of advantages. For example:
- The accurate location of hostile weapon fire can be automatically detected by coupled visual and acoustic sensors. Communicating this information with other troops, unmanned aerial vehicles or aircraft will be quicker, easier and less confusing than giving verbal instructions; it is also extremely accurate.
- Automatic warnings are given when the user is at risk of potential blue-on-blue incidents, thanks to weapon-mounted orientation sensors and knowledge of one’s own location relative to members of the fire team.
- Once located, points of interest such as the location of casualties, civilians and potential helicopter landing sites can be automatically designated and handed off.
- All of this information is provided clearly to the user via an augmented reality sight or head up display, making the system simple and intuitive to use.
The route to success
To keep pace with emerging challenges on the battlefield, technology must be developed quickly, and considering the capabilities demonstrated by DCCS, the fact it was developed in just three years is impressive. This was achieved by looking not solely within defence, but to technologies accelerated by the funding and expertise available within the academic and commercial worlds. Instead of reinventing the wheel Team Prometheus cast the net wide to identify novel sensor and processing technologies and recognised that instead of solving a problem with a single sensor, multiple integrated sensors would provide a particularly powerful approach to improving military capability.
The team independently assessed 252 fledgling technologies from across industry and academia. These were evaluated against a long checklist, including:
- Technology Readiness Level (TRL)
- Relevance to the dismounted soldier’s need
- Current Capability Gap as defined by Dstl
- Potential for body-worn deployment
- Ability to be integrated with other technologies
This thorough evaluation and down-selection process gave the team a deep understanding of the benefits each technology afforded in urban environments; the most promising were selected for further development, then optimised and fused into an integrated system. To maximise soldier relevance and usability the evolving system was also periodically reviewed by a Military Judgement Panel, assessing the system’s progress against requirements. The result was a successful demonstration of innovative wearable sensor technology in September 2016.
Whilst this has been a very complex and technically challenging project, there is no doubt that the programme has delivered considerable success. The concept has been proven to work and has highlighted a wealth of potential for both military and civilian applications – examples of the latter include search and rescue operations and tracking firefighters in smoke-filled buildings. The next step is to evolve this concept from a demonstrator to a system ready to be deployed in the field, addressing issues such as size, weight, power, ruggedness and cost. But one thing is certain: DCCS technology is currently on track to go into service in the 2020s, giving our Armed Forces a battle-winning edge.
- Ministry of Defence UK (2014). Strategic Trends Programme Future Operating Environment 2035. Available at:
www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/484861/20151203-DCDC_FOE_35.pdf (accessed 20 October 2016)