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Data and the Dismounted Soldier

By Leo McCloskey, Vice President of Marketing at Echodyne

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Echodyne's VisionGuard

Echodyne's VisionGuard

Information about opposing forces activities, positions and movements is a key objective of and advantage in every engagement. Expeditionary and frontline forces are tasked with extending reach, probing enemy positions and reporting back their findings. This activity exposes dismounted soldiers to a range of risks, especially enemy drones conducting intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and more lethal missions, and introduces subjective biases into the data that creates a common operating picture (COP). Technology can and must enhance troop safety, help secure mission objectives and enrich data gathering capabilities at low cost and with low additional effort required.

The importance of the right data at the right time and place can be the difference between mission success and failure, between safety and harm's way. This is the basic bargain made by every Command - the information collected is valuable enough to risk lives to obtain it. It is the reason for orders that send troops to austere locations with minimal support - gather data, report back.

It is also why so much investment flows towards communications gear and capabilities, and even larger volumes into resilient communications platforms with multiple terrestrial, aerial and orbital paths. The data collected is time sensitive, making latency as important as survivability. This is a subjective chain of information, with training and discipline essential for removing human bias and error. Where possible, replacing humans with sensors offers fundamental advantages that enhance situational awareness:

  • Volume. A talented and well-trained human spotter can identify ground targets at hundreds, sometimes several hundreds of metres in range. Air targets are more challenging as the threats become very small drones in large volumes of airspace. Sensors, like radar, search, detect and track all movement across huge volumes of space in both air and ground domains at ranges far beyond human sensory abilities.
  • Accuracy. Sensors generate data with much higher geospatial accuracy at greater range. Radar will generate azimuth, elevation, range, velocity and orientation data with high geospatial fidelity at 10 times per second.
  • Efficiency. Humans using surveillance tools must verbalize this information to a second person, who captures and relays the data, whereas machines generate and communicate without assistance.
  • Consistency. Differences in acuity across varieties of humans are well documented whereas machines operate the same way each and every time.
  • Networking. In the time it takes a human operator to identify a location and verbally communicate that location via communications, advanced systems are actively tracking the intruder, identifying vehicle type and capabilities, and providing effector options to operators.

Sensors can be categorized or differentiated in many ways. In general, active emitting sensors, such as active radar, generate a level of precision that passive sensors, such as passive radar, cannot match. Active emitters are essential for training optics and effectors on targets with accuracy - no other sensor combination is as consistently precise. The same power that creates long detection ranges on intruders, however, makes active emitters like radar bright targets for drones with radar-targeting modules and munitions.

Radar is the baseline sensor that provides required range, high degrees of accuracy and is essential for training optical sensors as well as kinetic effectors, but also has operational risks as an active emitter. For this article, we will focus on using an active sensor, radar, to augment the dismounted soldier in achieving mission objectives and enhancing situational awareness.

As well-trained as troops are in ISR, there are physical limitations to human perception that only radar can overcome. Humans require favourable lighting and environmental conditions, while radars have no environmental dependencies and offer capabilities that vastly exceed humans in all aspects. No matter the mission parameters, machine sensory capabilities outperform human sensory capabilities.

The challenges to fielding higher quantities of radar for the dismounted soldier have been many:

  • Cost. For radar, effective performance requires an electronically scanned array (ESA) architecture, and these have largely been heavily customized high-cost units with long lead times. Breaking the high-performance lock to high cost has long been an obstacle.
  • Mobility. Size, weight and power (SWaP) obstacles for radar are well-known. ESA radars have resisted reductions in size that do not translate into performance impacts. They can be operationally needy in time for setup and calibration and equipment spares, as well. Every aspect of fielded ESA radar resists mobility.
  • Technology. Conventional radar technology has design limitations that steer resources toward larger radars that operate very well but require its own vehicle for transportation. Moving high performance radar to a portable form factor has proven challenging.
  • Targeting. Active emitters broadcast a transmission location to enemy drones that target radar signals.
  • Ease of Use. Conventional ESA radar requires specialized operational training, limiting use to specially trained operators.

With the aid of new technologies, equipping the dismounted soldier for enhanced situational awareness that achieves mission objectives and maximizes troop protection is now possible. A novel approach to ESA radar is championed by Echodyne, employing a physics-design approach called metamaterials. The Echodyne metamaterials ESA, or metamaterials electronically scanned array (MESA®), radically changes ESA design architecture with a high-density/high-performance transmit/receive (Tx/Rx) array that matches conventional radar performance while shattering SWaP barriers.

Commercial off the shelf (COTS) radars with a one-week order to ship period, Echodyne's commercial MESA radars are made in the USA and offer critical supply chain security for high performance sensors. Weighing only 1.2 kg and able to operate on a standard 2590 battery for nearly 6 hours, Echodyne's EchoGuard radar tracks small drones at more than one kilometer, humans at more than two kilometers, and vehicles and vessels at well over three kilometers. It can be physically configured in less than ten minutes and fully operational in less than fifteen minutes and provides a large field of view (120° azimuth x 80° elevation). A fielded radar kit, consisting of a Toughbook computer, all cables, radar, tripod for radar, batteries and solar collector, can fit in one pack weighing less than 15 kg / 34 lbs.

The data generated by MESA radar accurately classifies targets and provides high precision geospatial location information at high data rates (≥10 Hz) for targeting systems and effector solutions. Only minimal training is required to set up and configure the radar, with the data quickly communicated to higher order systems via standard field communications equipment.

From a counter-radar perspective, there are certain attributes to radar detection and targeting to consider. The equipment that scans for radar signals searches for large emitters with bright signals that project across dozens of kilometers, as nearly all radars do. Use of small form factor radars with signals that do not extend beyond a half-dozen kilometers immediately minimize detectability.

The radio signal emitted by radars is actively shaped to a certain size, called beamforming. The smaller the beam, the smaller the signal footprint produced by the radar. MESA radars direct high volumes of small beams in and out of tightly defined volumes of airspace in microseconds that reduces detectability through design. Echodyne radars also operate in an area of spectrum (NATO J- and K-bands) that is typically outside the scan range of most radar detectors, which is typically NATO I-band and below (<10 GHz). There are other capabilities to minimize the electronics footprint that assist the dismounted soldier in remaining undetected.

As with any sensor, though, the real value comes from fusing multiple sensors together under a powerful command and control (C2) software layer. Radar detection automatically trains optical sensors on the target with high speed/high accuracy data that locks eyes on the intruder. A system with an acoustic sensor can passively detect incoming drones, flash the radar on to acquire high fidelity geospatial and trajectory data, relay that precision data to targeting and effector platforms, and turn the radar off and go undetectable - all in less time that required to find and target the radar signal. This combination of passive and active sensors, with each sensor performing to its maximum capability, enables a much wider area of detailed situational awareness that enhances troop safety and ensures mission success.

In the technology world, the focus is often on Moore's Law, which posits that technology will rapidly increase in capability while decreasing in cost. However true and important, it tends to overshadow another “law” from the early Internet days - Metcalfe's Law. This posited that the value of a network is equal to the square of the users. One might argue that the intense focus on mesh networks and resilient communications underscores the importance of the data from each user to the overall network.

Imagine that the data across these resilient networks is not spoken codes but machine data, with high fidelity data now generated by every platoon. Not just what each spotter can see but the volumes of objects machines can simultaneously detect and track with extraordinary precision. The value of sensors to detail every geographic shadow and to enhance soldier safety and troop situational awareness with high fidelity data far exceeds the cost of high-performance COTS products.

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