Making wearable computers battle-ready

Dismounted warfighters have precise missions to perform in dangerous conditions and rapidly evolving situations. As militaries worldwide move toward soldier modernization programs, computer technology has taken a leading role in military ground operations. Wearable equipment has emerged as a critical investment to improve situational awareness, protect friendly forces, and exert precision lethal force. Designers of wearable military electronics must understand the use-case of the product and account for complex variables such as interface management, environmental performance, and ruggedization.

User acceptance is vital

User acceptance – or lack thereof – will make or break a product design because even the most useful tools will sometimes be omitted from a mission if deemed to impede speed and response times, decrease range of motion, increase fatigue, or are otherwise cumbersome to the person who has to wear or carry them.

With the average warfighter carrying between 63 and 130 pounds of gear, equipment for dismounted operations must be optimized to the operating environment and how the user moves. Special consideration should also be given to how the equipment solves a requirement in context with the other equipment the operator carries. A war-fighter, for example, may be asked to carry a video downlink receiver and a computer, each with its own display. Developing an interface between the two could eliminate a redundant display, reducing the amount of gear carried.

A holistic design philosophy that considers how a product will be stored, transported, used, and operated along with other systems increases the probability of user acceptance. The volatile nature of the battlefield demands both vigilance and the ability for warfighters to react quickly. Time spent packing gear or powering on equipment translates to wasted time. Equipment that can be operated while moving is more valuable. Tools must enhance operations without being obtrusive or hindering the ability to complete a mission.

Design for extreme environments

The environment in which the dismounted military electronics will be used is also important. From operating in high electro-magnetic fields, withstanding afternoon temperatures reaching 140 °F, forging rivers, and operating in blowing sand and driving snow, extreme conditions are often the norm for military equipment and should be a primary consideration.

Fanless designs increase the ruggedness of electronics because there are fewer moving parts. And because fans cool equipment by pulling hot air away from the unit and blowing it outward, a fanless system can be cooler because it is not blowing hot air onto the user’s body.

Care should be taken in designing wearable computers to avoid areas away from the body’s core. Weight strapped on arms or legs strains the user’s limbs with prolonged use, causes fatigue, and impedes a soldier’s ability to navigate their environment. Additionally, managing cable to these areas becomes more difficult, increases the hazard of cable snags, and can weaken the integrity of the equipment from constant motion.

Go beyond requirements: See it firsthand

At Black Diamond Advanced Technology, when we began designing our Modular Tactical System (MTS) – a wearable C4ISR and precision targeting system that centralizes communications, equipment, and power management (Figure 1) – we knew cable management was important, but it wasn’t until our team’s lead designers were embedded with a U.S. Army Special Operations unit that we truly understood how critical. We learned certain pieces of equipment that could have been beneficial to a mission weren’t carried because the cables continuously failed due to constant friction or snagging; equipment that is not 100 percent reliable is simply left behind.

Figure 1: Black Diamond Advanced Technology’s Modular Tactical System (MTS) is a rugged wearable C4ISR and precision targeting tool. The uniform-integrated system has passed user acceptance and usability tests in Operation Enduring Freedom.
(Click graphic to zoom)

A successful product will almost certainly involve multiple design iterations where valuable user feedback is allowed to shape the development. For our team, seeing firsthand the unit’s pile of unused equipment and failed cables was a catalyst for finding a better way to treat the soldier as a system. We accomplished this by developing a patent-pending cummerbund that integrates cables into the armor plate carrier, keeping cables both protected and immobile to ensure reliability.

Better technology for today’s warfighters

Computers have already proven their usefulness in combat, especially in pinpointing targets and increasing situational awareness and combat effectiveness. However, the use of today’s computer systems on the battlefield – against an elusive enemy that quickly appears then blends back into the non-combatant population – has its shortcomings. There is little time to prosecute the target, let alone pull equipment out of a pack and cable it all together. A truly integrated wearable system is a game-changer in the modern engagement scenarios our war-fighters face today. If technology is unobtrusive, easily maneuverable, and reliable, the system is likely to aid speed and accuracy, limit fratricide, and gain critical user acceptance.

Justin Dyster is Vice President of Engineering for Black Diamond Advanced Technology, where he leads the design and engineering of rugged, customizable computers, including the wearable Modular Tactical System and the SwitchBackTM. Under his leadership, Black Diamond develops COTS solutions for commercial applications and custom solutions primarily for specialized military operations.

Black Diamond Advanced Technology