Wearable sensors improve troop tracking and situational awareness without GPS

Mock up of how DCCS could look in service(Credit: MoD)

The British Ministry of Defence (MoD) has unveiled a new wearable sensor technology designed to keep track of squaddies and prevent friendly fire incidents. Under development by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl), the Dismounted Close Combat Sensors (DCCS) system will allow commanders to track troops without GPS, while providing better situational awareness.

GPS navigation is one of those technologies that has revolutionized warfare with its ability to locate an object to within a meter. Unfortunately, the system is only really useful in open country with a clear view of the sky to receive satellite signals. This means that soldiers patrolling built up areas, searching buildings, or entering tunnels are often at a sudden disadvantage. In addition, GPS signals can be spoofed or jammed, so even ideal conditions are no guarantee of reliability.

Dstl, in partnership with Roke Manor Research, QinetiQ, and Systems Engineering and Assessment, sees DCCS as a solution to not only the GPS problem, but as a system to detect threats, improve targeting capabilities, give commanders more accurate situational awareness, and better share information with troops.

When we contacted the MoD, a spokesman said that DCCS has already gone through a number of development iterations to produce sensor algorithms necessary for the system to operate. The reason for this is that the engineers found that no single sensor could do the job, so they opted for a suite of different sensors that are integrated by a fusion algorithm to make the system more reliable over a wide variety of conditions.

DCCS is a modular, multiple open-source system that conforms to the MoD's Generic Soldier Architecture used to standardize military equipment requirements. It's based on a core of GPS, Inertial Navigation System (INS), and video-tracking sensors that include lasers, dual-antenna GPS, a new thermal sight, shortwave infrared band for targeting, and integrated magnetic sensors.

To keep costs down and speed development, off the shelf components are used whenever possible. The MoD says that the biggest challenge was developing the fusion methodology, so that the system operates in real-time and is a wearable size.

For navigation, DCCS uses INS sensors that work the same way as the accelerometers and compass in a smartphone to calculate the soldier's position based on speed and bearings from the last GPS fix. This is made more precise and accurate by also using visual cues, such as doors, windows, and signs from a helmet camera, which allows the system to calculate the individual's position even in three dimensions.

By combining data from GPS, cameras, inertial sensors, and magnetic sensors mounted on a soldier's weapon, commanders can not only see where someone is, but where their weapon is pointing. If troops are inadvertently targeting friendly forces, the commander can intervene before a tragedy occurs.

Targeting with DCCS uses a combination of camera, lasers and orientation sensors mounted on the soldier's personal weapon. This highlights targets, such as troops, unmanned aerial vehicles, and aircraft, as well as civilians and the wounded, and can be seen by others equipped with the proper sensors. The spokesman says this method is a quicker and easier way to convey information than verbal instructions.

In addition to GPS, INS, and video tracking, the targeting system also uses acoustic sensors that help the system automatically identify where gunfire is coming from and laser rangefinders to pinpoint locations even before the soldier is aware of them. Commanders can use information from many soldiers to form an accurate threat assessment and keep the troops informed as to how to deal with them.

The Mod sees DCCS as having a wide range of non-military applications, such as monitoring autonomous cars, emergency services inside buildings, or mine rescue workers underground. Though miniaturization and a number of issues still need to be addressed, DCCS is scheduled to see service sometime in the next decade.

"We independently considered 252 fledgling technologies from across industry, academia, and beyond, before developing, distilling, and fusing them to create the concept of an integrated wearable sensor system, which we then built and trialled," says Roke's lead engineer on the DCCS project, Mark Coleman. "In addition to providing military advantage, we've also seen how DCCS lends itself as a testing platform to bring technology to the frontline faster."

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