Soldier feedback shaping next-generation blue force tracking, handhelds
December 9, 2011
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ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. (Dec. 9, 2011) -- The Army's next-generation friendly force tracking system that aims to transform communications for dismounted Soldiers is capitalizing on user feedback as it steps closer to deployment.
The Army held a "user jury" this month for Joint Battle Command-Platform, or JBC-P, the successor to the widely fielded Force XXI Battle Command Brigade and Below/Blue Force Tracking system, known as FBCB2/BFT. During several sessions at Fort Carson, Colo., more than 75 Soldiers experimented with upgraded JBC-P software features such as detailed touch-to-zoom maps and drag-and-drop icons. They also tried out networked handheld devices with JBC-P "apps" that will deliver a new level of mission command and situational awareness information to the dismounted Soldier.
"It's a fit for the new generation of the Army, where everything is going to video games and smartphones," said Sgt. 1st Class Edward Whitaker, a 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division Soldier who participated in the user jury. "The way the apps are set up, they'll be able to pick it up and configure it as they need. It's flexible for just about anybody."
JBC-P combines hardware, software, security and communications capabilities so units can synchronize operations and avoid friendly fire incidents. Its display screen shows blue and red icons over a geospatial imagery map, indicating the locations of friendly and enemy forces as well as terrain hazards. The system will also connect dismounted Soldiers with those in vehicles, aircraft and command posts, allowing them to communicate through text messages and group chat.
The JBC-P system is a crucial building block of the Army's integrated network baseline and of its Capability Set 13, which will begin fielding to up to eight brigade combat teams in 2013. The official operational test for JBC-P will take place in the fall of 2012 at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., in conjunction with the Network Integration Evaluation, or NIE, 13.1.
Prototypes of the handheld version of JBC-P have recently participated in the NIE process, yielding valuable feedback from realistic operational scenarios. Soldier input from the NIEs and user juries is directly shaping the ongoing development of the JBC-P product developers kit, which will allow the Army and third parties to build applications to run on the JBC-P framework -- similar to the "apps" marketplace used on the Apple iPhone or Google Android operating systems.
User feedback will also influence the Army's decisions on which Soldiers will receive networked handheld devices for the battlefield, and how those devices will be used at different echelons.
"This is part of a never-ending customer feedback loop and incremental improvement," said Lt. Col. Mark Daniels, product manager for JBC-P. "User juries, risk reduction experimentation events and NIEs combine to ensure we can get the best possible system to the field."
The JBC-P handheld software runs on Nett Warrior hardware devices, connected to the Army's tactical network via the Joint Tactical Radio System, known as JTRS, Rifleman Radio and its Soldier Radio Waveform. Delivering timely blue force tracking information down to lower-echelon Soldiers, specifically at the team leader through platoon leader level, will greatly enhance dismounted operations.
"Soldiers can see the locations of other members of their platoon, U.S. forces, coalition forces -- they can track the location of anyone in their area of operations directly from the handheld," said Maj. Anthony Douglas, assistant product manager for Blue Force Tracking - Software. "Not only can they see where they are, but they can also send traffic back and forth via chat and text messages."
With JBC-P, the Army is leveraging the success of and investment in FBCB2, which has approximately 100,000 systems already in the field, providing essential communications in Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom/New Dawn. In addition, the Marine Corps and logistics community each have approximately 10,000 systems in the field that will adapt JBC-P software.
The Army has already begun fielding the Joint Capabilities Release , or JCR, software for FBCB2 to 20 operational brigade combat teams. JCR provides a "bridge" to JBC-P, equipping Soldiers with a faster satellite network in BFT2, Marine Corps interoperability, secure data encryption and other features.
JBC-P expands on those capabilities with more modern graphics and easy-to-use features for both the handheld and vehicle-mounted versions of the system.
"It's a lot more user-friendly than the current FBCB2 user interface," said Sgt. Matthew Alexander, another 3/4 ID Soldier who participated in the user jury. "It moves a lot quicker with the new software, and there's a lot less latency." Rapid updates of blue force locations are critical to the commander on the ground trying to make a decision, he said.
"The faster it populates, the more up to date and accurate your situational awareness is on the ground for your end users," said Alexander, who used the original FBCB2 while serving in Iraq from 2007-2009 and again in 2010-2011. "That's very important, especially when you're in an environment where things could turn hostile and get rough really quickly."
On a single screen, JBC-P also integrates the functionality of the Tactical Ground Reporting, or TIGR, system, a collaborative software tool that uses an intuitive interface, pictures and text to provide a searchable database of unit activities. TIGR, which also exists as an "app" on the handhelds, allows users to enter and share patrol information such as routes, places and people of interest.
Whitaker, who used FBCB2 and TIGR separately while deployed in Iraq, said the combination of the two through JBC-P is "so much simpler" and would have boosted his ability to complete his missions.
"We would've been able to send quicker reports and capture more people," he said.