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Off-The-Shelf Gear Strengthens Marine Operations

The U.S. Marine Corps is on the lookout for off-the-shelf technologies to support its warfighters’ operational needs as they deploy around the world. Because the service is called on to perform both combat and humanitarian missions—often simultaneously in the same region—readily available equipment capable of being applied to a variety of situations is on many commanders’ checklists. Some commercial gear that currently is being used by the Marines and the other U.S. military services includes portable geolocation systems, handheld translators and tents equipped with photovoltaic cells.


By Henry S. Kenyon, SIGNAL Magazine
April 2010

Marine units in Haiti are using the Rapid Data Management System (RDMS), manufactured by Global Relief Technologies (GRT) Incorporated, to conduct site assessments of local infrastructure and facilities. Designed for use in disaster management operations, the RDMS consists of a set of rugged personal digital assistants (PDAs) linked to a broadband global area network (BGAN) Inmarsat satellite terminal. The PDAs are equipped with Global Positioning System (GPS) chips and are loaded with software allowing users to conduct site surveys and tag buildings with geolocation data. Information from the handsets is transmitted to the satellite terminal, which uplinks it back to a command center to create a common operational picture for disaster response organizations.

Michael Hartnett, vice president of GRT, explains that the Marine Corps became interested in the RDMS for its potential to assist the Corps in its disaster response and humanitarian efforts following its experiences providing aid after the Asian tsunami in 2004. The service purchased the first RDMS terminals in 2008. The GRT system transmits data on a secure but unclassified network that allows the military to share information with nongovernment organizations. Personnel using the PDAs can fill out survey information, such as the location and status of major buildings. This data includes a structure’s GPS coordinates and a range of photographic, video and map information.

The RDMS terminal is roughly the size of a small notebook computer. The terminal creates a WiFi bubble between 50 to 100 yards wide capable of supporting between 10 to 30 PDAs. The system also can be equipped with additional battery packs and a wireless router that can cover up to three square miles when set up on a building or some other high point.

Hartnett notes that Marines attached to U.S. Southern Command conducting humanitarian relief work in Haiti are using the system. Marines equipped with the specialized PDAs conducted a survey of all of the hospitals in Port-au-Prince. The survey data then was transmitted back to the U.S. Navy’s Bureau of Medicine and Surgery in Washington, D.C., which is coordinating fleet medical assets in Haiti.

In addition to disaster relief, the Marine Corps also is examining other missions for the system, such as civil affairs work in Afghanistan, says Lawrence Paul, vice president of business development for Vizada, which supplied the BGAN satellite terminals for the RDMS. As Marine units clear a region of Taliban forces, the PDAs will allow Marines to mark buildings such as schools and government facilities for reconstruction and repair by organizations such as the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Communicating with local people is another vital aspect of both combat and humanitarian operations. The MilTrans Voice Response Translator (VRT) manufactured by Integrated Wave Technologies, is a hands-free translator roughly the size of a deck of cards that can be worn on the front of a warfighter’s ballistic vest. It also can be mounted on a bullhorn for crowd control situations. The device is designed to operate in high noise environments to receive spoken commands and to translate spoken responses. There are no external interfaces or buttons to select languages. Users verbally select a language and then request specific sets of phrases associated with missions such as searches or checkpoints.

The latest version of the translator can store phrases in up to 200 languages. The VRT currently features phrases in 52 languages. The new version also has an improved battery life of 75 hours compared to the 25-hour life of older VRTs. Timothy McCune, president of Integrated Wave Technologies, says that the new version also includes an improved voice recognition system to understand phrases. However, he notes that there is not much external difference between the various versions of the device.

Originally developed in the late 1990s for use by the Justice Department, McCune notes that the Marine Corps has used the VRT in small numbers since 2000, but adds that early versions were little more than prototypes. A total of 8,100 VRTs have been fielded to all the services and the Coast Guard, with three-quarters of the devices being used by the Army. McCune adds that the U.S. Marine Corps Systems Command has approved the unit-level purchase of the VRTs without the need for major acquisition paperwork, although unit commanders must approve the acquisition.

The VRT has proven itself to be a valuable tool in the field, explains Joshua Noble, who used the device operationally in two deployments to Iraq. Noble, who mustered out of the Marine Corps in 2009, was a lance corporal with the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, operating in Iraq in 2005 and 2007. He notes that for most of his deployment, he was the only man equipped with the translator in his unit. “We used it as a means to translate key pieces of information to the Iraqis that we were trying to talk to,” he says.

When the Marines searched a house, the VRT allowed them to operate without an interpreter. He noted that many Marines trained in Arabic did not have the proper pronunciation, which made communications difficult. But the VRT allowed the Marines to translate key pieces of information during searches.

Noble notes that the VRT allowed him to communicate directly with Iraqi citizens without having to use hand signals. “It was a lot quicker and easier and much smoother to use the VRT as opposed to trying to communicate with your hands or make motions. It was a pretty awesome piece of equipment to have with us for that reason,” he says.

The VRT that Noble used was a prototype device given to his unit. He says that he was impressed by the device’s intuitive nature. Because it was a prototype, it did not have any instructions, but he was able to use the voice prompts to program the unit and set it up for his use. Although it had a few bugs associated with recognizing certain phrase categories, he maintains that the overall experience with the device was very satisfying. “It cut down communication times and it cut the number of personnel needed on patrols. It also reduced the amount of time to focus on certain things that needed to get done,” he says.

Due to cultural differences between U.S. troops and Iraqis, there was a high potential for misunderstanding. Noble says that the VRT allowed him to say the exact things that he wanted to say in the exact phrasing that was respectful to the Iraqis. This helped to keep tensions and frustrations to a minimum, which allowed his troops to focus on the mission.

Solar power systems also are helping Marines operate in undeveloped regions such as areas in Afghanistan. In addition to the lack of infrastructure, providing fuel to run generators is a constant logistical challenge. To meet its requirements, the Marine Corps is examining technologies designed to shorten its supply needs in the field.

One candidate is a tent with built-in solar cells. Developed for temperature and energy efficiency, the shelter uses an efficient thermal fly to manage internal temperature and reduce overall power use. According to Tom Eggers, director of Utilis, which manufactures the tents, recent Air Force tests demonstrated that the shelter cut the need for internal air conditioning by 26 percent. He notes that this efficiency is achieved by the tent’s exterior design, which provides an air space that insulates the interior. The shelters also are designed to be set up within three to five minutes.

The Air Force approached the company with the idea of installing solar panels on the tent, Eggers explains. Tests found that the solar panels generated over 4 kilowatts of power for running equipment and recharging batteries. This internal power capability fit in with the Marine Corps’ needs for more flexible power supplies for its expeditionary forces, he says.

The tent’s power supply is the result of a partnership with Energy Tech Incorporated, which developed the solar cells and an accompanying wind generator. Recent advances in thin film technology also have boosted the panel’s efficiency. Eggers explains that thin film solar panels traditionally have a six percent efficiency converting solar radiation into power. The tent’s solar panels use a new thin film process with an efficiency of 14 percent that meets military requirements for ruggedness and power output. He notes that the new solar cell technology allows the tent’s power output to be boosted to 6 kilowatts.

The Marine Corps is considering using the tents, and Eggers adds that the Army is in the process of acquiring the solar shelters. He adds that the tent is very effective for command posts and outposts. Company engineers currently are working out the cabling and operational needs for the tent with the goal of making its components more adaptable with military equipment, he says.

The tent was demonstrated at the Marine Corps Communications-Electronics School at Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base, California, in December. Todd Jesen, an instructor at the school and a former Marine, noted that while units deployed in the field will not be able to avoid using generators, the use of solar panels and wind generators will reduce some of the service’s logistical needs. He added that in his opinion, such arrangements could save the Marine Corps money from fuel and other operational costs.