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SPIE DCS 2021: Plenary talk considers military sensing challenges

14 Apr 2021

Dr. Donald Reago from US Army’s C5ISR describes how modern sensing is transforming the “analog soldier” into a “digital soldier”.

Sensing for warfare in the digital information age was the focus of a plenary session at this week’s SPIE Defense & Commercial Sensing digital conference. Presenter Dr. Donald Reago is Acting Director of the US Command, Control, Communications, Computer, & Cyber, Intelligence, Surveillance, & Reconnaissance Center (C5ISR).

Dr. Reago is responsible for the technical direction of a Science and Technology program with a $200M annual budget, a staff of 470, and a technical scope comprising in-house and contract research, and support to various programs across the US Army and joint services.

The presentation examined sensing in warfare in relation to asymmetric threats, multi-domain operations, and command and control layers and their demands on information processing and networking. He considered new types of sensors and the “SWAP-C” factors required by the military – size, weight, power and cost.

“There are many different applications from augmented reality and targeting systems, to physical security surveillance and mine detection where processing of cameras can be used to provide information to help the war fighter execute a mission,” he said.

“What is stressing the army, now? Targets are getting harder and harder to find; our potential adversaries or competitors have learned that if they can be sensed they're probably going to be killed. So there are increasing efforts to hide, to make targets more difficult to detect.

“The army’s goal is to first win the battle for information. That is what will enable the army to act decisively and defeat a threat and signal processing and processing of sensors is a key element of the technology which can provide the information.“

‘The digital soldier’

Dr. Reago then described how modern sensing technologies and associated processing is transforming the warfighter from an “analog solidier” into a “digital soldier”.

“The digital soldier starts with a helmet-mounted display, which can display information of all types. We need digital sensors to feed it for night imaging, so digital thermal sensors feed into the helmet-mounted display. A weapon-mounted sensor connects to the head up display so information can be automatically projected into the display to speed up the ability to engage targets.

“The digital soldier now can report information out digitally and take information in digitally so, in a sense, he becomes a weapon platform not much different than a tank or helicopter. We take that digital soldier and network him to build a digital, cohesive squad – which again can act like a weapon system.”

New sensor needs

One of the perpetual development challenges facing Dr. Reago’s group is new, better sensors. “Now the types of programs we are building to have to be more complex, and we have to pair the new sensors with algorithms that are used to generate the digital information,” he said.

“The next challenge is probably something is very familiar to most people in this community: the explosive growth in the number of pixels. These situation awareness applications require a lot of pixels. As we think about going into 360-degree applications where we want to understand everything around us that number of pixels jumps even higher.

“Infrared imaging is still our best approach for night-day and night really. In uncooled infrared we're continuing to make really good progress. I see formats continuing to increase from our very smallest systems now to multiple megapixel camera arrays, smaller and smaller pixels higher dynamic range.”

Technology trends

Dr. Reago then went on to consider the attributes of uncooled, cooled and digital readout sensing technologies.

“Uncooled continues to improve thanks to programs within the army and DARPA and this technology is very viable for use in many military applications. We need to continue to push this technology forward to apply it as into as many applications as possible because of its cost advantages.

“Cooled infrared technology is making similar improvements again in terms of format sizes; multi mega pixel arrays are relatively routine now; pixel sizes keep getting smaller and smaller, and we see the movement from single band imagers to multi band imagers even multiple spectral or hyperspectral imagers.

“The newcomer is digital read out technology; digital read out technology I believe is one of the enablers for future information warfare because it’s very difficult to manage the amount of data that comes out of these sensors.

“As we go forward we’re likely to see in the next decade at most of the sensor systems we build will be based on the underlying digital read out backbone, which is going to be a big change from where we were even ten years ago.”

“The last technology area I want to talk about is processing. When we started putting multi-mega pixel sensors around a vehicle, for example, we really strained the limits of commercial processing technology; we can overwhelm the fibre optic data buses that are in the platforms and exceed the capacity of commercial processors. So there's still a need for an improvement in processing.”


“As I see some of these development efforts although it is sort of strikes me that we're moving towards is an AI assistant it's almost like fully realised you have an extra crew member in the vehicle now not the little cute robot with the roundhead that can turn around although turning head might not be such a bad idea,” Dr. Reago said.

“It’s probably just going to be collection of sensors and processors algorithms but what it will do is provide actionable information or intelligence directly to the crew, it will be looking all the time at the environment understanding it providing useful information.

“In this next decade we’re going to see a transition to this way of thinking about sensors and processing on platforms that will significantly enhance our war fighting capability. We are in the digital information age. The commercial world is completely embedded in it; the military is catching up a little bit at least in the tactical world but this does seem to be the future.

“This will put a very heavy demand on the sensing, processing, and sharing of the data, which will be the key determinant in whether we will be successful or not. There's going to be a strong role or improvements in sensing and processing technology the types of stuff we do here in SPIE to enable the army to do these things in the future.”

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