Wearables technology is becoming the focus of various developments, and particular emphasis is placed on its applications in the military. For one, it could spell the difference between life or death for soldiers.
A recent conference aboard the HMS Belfast in London brought together senior military innovation personnel with acting servicemen and technical innovators in relevant fields. The topic: Wearable technology for the military.
Improving the capabilities of the soldier is the primary aim; any technology will only ever be part of the potential solutions
Military development programmes revolve around improving the capabilities of the soldier. Technology platforms, whether they are wearable or not, and regardless of technical sophistication, will only ever be a part of the solution in this development process.
All of the military personnel at the HMS Belfast event agreed that too much of the development so far has been technology focused, without properly addressing the needs of the soldier. This is an expected problem for a small company looking to exploit new markets for their technology. At the other end of the spectrum, the likes of BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin and others are involving military personnel earlier in the development process, but the challenge is significant because the stakes are at their highest.
The discussion also highlighted the significant issue of wearables being left behind. This is seen as a problem with consumer devices that is amplified when it comes to military platforms. WO1 Gary Simpson of the parachute regiment repeated a need to enhance the “situational awareness” for soldiers on the ground. However, with a 57kg of weight to carry during operations, anything which is considered non-essential to an operation will simply be “left under the bed.”
The problem with traditional development processes, and a vision of the future
James Gerard from BAE Systems spoke of recent steps they have taken to get away from this approach; e.g., the development of warships. For more than a century, the approach has been almost entirely additive, whether it be a bigger gun, better radar reflectors, torpedo resistant hull, and so on. Illustrating the concerted effort to move away from this, he described the Type 45 Destroyer, which involved a redesign with integration and functional optimisation at its heart.
For the dismounted soldier, the solution needs focus on two key areas:
Adaptability: This describes a modular approach to the system, where different components can be selected depending on the mission or even personal preference. This requires connector standards and design integration between previously separate areas of equipment development.
Practicality: The device(s) should be based around the soldiers’ needs. An average platoon carries 16 different kinds of batteries, with a single soldier requiring five or six different types. The lack of integration also extends to data connectors, wireless protocols and equipment examples. This presents a logistical challenge to the majority of national military organisations, and needs to be understood by developers if they are to contribute positively to continued platform development.
Key technology trends beneath the surface
When it comes to technology integration, the military has a mixed track record. At one end, huge investments are driving significant advances in weaponry, communications, armour, vehicles, right through to exoskeletons and battlefield medicine. The same is true of wearable technology, but the additional human factors around soldier preference and weight severely limit the functionalities that can be employed.
So what is in place? Hand-held GPS, optical sights for weaponry, thermal or night vision imaging in headsets, and radio-based communications are common. These technologies have been employed for decades, with the military often adopting these techniques some time before commercial equivalents appeared.