WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Dec. 29, 2015) -- In 2015, the U.S. Army's homepage published dozens of stories regarding technology being developed by engineers and scientists across the force. Among the topics of interest were developments in power distribution, robotics and network security software.

The editors at Army News Service delved into an array of science and technology reporting from 2015, and pulled just a few topics to highlight here.

GETTING OFF THE GRID

A big vulnerability to Soldiers on installations around the world is dependence on the public electrical grid, said Katherine Hammack, who serves as assistant secretary of the Army for installations, energy and environment.

Hammack spoke earlier this month during an energy panel in Washington, D.C., Dec. 3.

Instead of depending on municipal power, the Army would instead like to generate its own power, and manage that with "smart microgrids" she said. Such grids prioritize and manage power loads, moving energy around to where it's needed most. The grids would also use renewable energy like solar, wind or hydro-electric.

One such smart microgrid, the Army's largest, is located on Fort Drum, New York, where a coal-fired power plant was converted to produce energy from biomass, she said. That plant now supplies power to the installation and the local community. Excess energy produced there can also be transferred back to the local power company.

In mid-November, the Army wanted to test what would happen if there was a disruption to the main power grid on Fort Drum. Disconnecting the installation from the local power utility ultimately proved the installation could survive under its own power, meaning the test was a success, Hammack said.

Another example of a smart microgrid, Hammack said, is one that's solar-powered on Fort Hunter-Liggett, California. It serves five buildings now, but there are plans for expansion across the post.

On Fort Carson, Colorado, the Army has partnered with Sandia National Laboratories to provide a solar-powered microgrid and vehicle-to-grid storage. That program, she said, goes by the name Smart Power Infrastructure Demonstration for Energy Reliability and Security, or SPIDERS.

The vehicle-to-grid approach uses Fort Carson's government vehicles as microgrid energy storage devices, she said. When the vehicles are parked, they receive electrical power from the microgrid. If they have excess power, they return it to the microgrid.

When the vehicles are being used, the vehicles themselves provide power to Soldiers who, for example, might be running electric power tools or compressors, she said. This alleviates the need for towing petroleum-fed generators around.

EVALUATING NETWORK EFFECTIVENESS

Nothing is more important than for Soldiers to be able to communicate with each other and allies on the battlefield. The Network Integration Evaluation, or NIE 16.1, took place Sept. 25 through Oct. 8, and evaluated that capability. The exercise was the largest NIE ever since the exercises started in 2011, said Brig. Gen. Terry McKenrick.

Normally, there are between 3,500 and 3,800 participants in NIE, said McKenrick, the commander of Brigade Modernization Command. NIE 16.1 had more than 9,000 U.S. and coalition troops, supported by more than 3,000 civilians, participating primarily on Fort Bliss, Texas, but also from other locations around the United States and the world.

NIE 16.1 assessed manned/unmanned teaming, which involves the seamless pairing of a pilot who sits in a helicopter, for instance, with one or more unmanned aerial vehicles that are flying in other locations. This capability increases situational understanding, lethality, and sustainment of maneuver forces while reducing manpower and risk, McKenrick said. In all, three unmanned ground systems were evaluated, as well as several networked unmanned air systems.

Networks provide the ability for Soldiers in command posts, mounted and dismounted, to download situational awareness data from unmanned air systems.

In another development, McKenrick said the Army is now going through an "assessment process" of accrediting White Sands-Bliss-Holloman as a "joint-multinational training capability. That will help us bring in more joint and multinational partners in future exercises."

Now and in the future, McKenrick said, the Army will operate as part of a joint and coalition force. That idea is not unique to NIE, but is in fact spelled out in the Army's keystone doctrine known as the "Army Operating Concept: Win in a Complex World," also known as the AOC.

To achieve the aim of the AOC effectively requires compatibility across network architectures of all involved, he said. That's why exercises such as the NIE are so important to the United States and its partner nations.

AGE OF THE ROBOTS

The age of Army ground robots will soon be here, said Scott Davis, program executive officer for Combat Support and Combat Service Support, back in April.

"Established and emerging robotics programs of record will be fielded in the 2019 to 2024" timeframe, he said.

The robotic systems under consideration include autonomous and semi-autonomous systems used to clear mines, provide surveillance, move supplies and acquire targets, among many other things.

Ground-based, semi-autonomous systems such as those that performed mine-clearing operations proliferated during the last decade of war. But Davis said those systems are often nonstandard, and are built with non-interchangeable parts. Additionally, many of them have not made the transition into programs of record, he said. They were hurriedly built for the immediate need to save Soldiers' lives.

Today, these disparate systems have become a "sustainment burden" to the Army, since they are not built into a program of record, he said, and were acquired through overseas contingency operations funding.

Davis is responsible for executive management of development, systems integration, acquisition, testing, fielding, sustainment and improvement of some 350 diverse combat support and combat service support systems. He, along with Soldiers involved in testing, will help sort through what robotic platforms will be used going forward and what will be riding on them.

Robotics technology evolves rapidly, Davis said. But the standard requirements and acquisition process is three to seven years. Under that schedule, odds are that a system that could serve the Army now might become obsolete before fielding or even before it reaches initial operational capability.

The Robotics Enhancement Program, or REP, should alleviate this concern, Davis said. The concept is similar to that of the Soldier Enhancement Program, which is not a full acquisition lifecycle program. REP was unveiled in May.

EXCALIBUR UNLEASHED

In October, the Army introduced its newest supercomputer, Excalibur, which will help ensure Soldiers have the technological advantage on the battlefield, officials said.

Excalibur is the 19th most powerful computer in the world. It's located at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, Department of Defense Supercomputing Resource Center at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland.

Increased computational capabilities will allow researchers to bring improved communications, data and intelligence to Soldiers in the field, said Maj. Gen. John F. Wharton, commander of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command.

"The Army Operating Concept discusses innovation and accelerating the speed of technology. The Excalibur will allow us to do that," he said, adding that Excalibur provides "decisive overmatch for our Army."

Wharton said when tied to the tactical network, Excalibur will be able to provide data instantly to the field.

PLAN X REVEALED

"Do you have a map in your car? When was the last time you looked at a compass? Imagine a day when we don't have that technology such as the Global Positioning System, better known as GPS. These are the things we worry about," Capt. James McColl said.

Both McColl and Capt. Justin Lanahan are cyber officers, part of the newly created 17-series Army branch. Both Army officers participated in a week-long "hackathon," July 20-24, in support of continued development of "Plan X," a four-year, $120-million program at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA.

Plan X attempts to, among other things, make it easier for humans to visualize a network and its components, to automate the task of identifying as hostile or benign the anomalies that might appear on that network, to provide intuitive symbology that accurately conveys to users the status of various components of a network, and to make it easier for even inexperienced users to take action to prevent hostile parties from gaining access to and causing damage to a network.

Any part of a commander's command and control network might include thousands of computers and networking components. The complexity of such networks makes them hard for humans to visualize, and difficult to defend. Plan X is meant to make that task easier.

Adversaries are always looking for ways to exploit networks for their own benefit, McColl said. And that doesn't always mean they use it for their own purpose, or that they want to steal information from it. They might also attack a network simply to disrupt its functionality and deny its use to those who own it.

The work done at the hackathon was meant to enhance the ability of Plan X to automatically identify threats to the network. During the course of the event, involved teams would periodically insert new code and algorithms into the system to see how they performed, Lanahan said.

Ideally, when a threat is identified, users of Plan X wouldn't need to be computer scientists or hackers themselves to defeat it. Instead, pre-written software tools that would be part of Plan X would allow users to drag their fingers over a threat to apply a software solution that could block an intrusion or defeat an infection.

With Plan X, it will be easier for operational commanders to understand the network in the same way they might understand the physical world around them, said Ian MacLeod, technical director of Army Cyber Command's Advanced Concepts and Technologies Directorate.

LAB COLLABORATION BOOSTED

Software engineers at the U.S. Army Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center, or ARDEC, in Picatinny Arsenal, New Jersey, developed a new mobile application that allows users to learn more about the many laboratories across the Department of Defense. The application was announced in October.

The Defense Laboratory Enterprise eSmartbook application, which is open to the public and available on both Apple and Android devices, was designed and developed in-house at the ARDEC Armament Software Engineering Center, or SEC, through coordination with the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Research and Engineering) Defense Laboratory Office.

The app provides users facts and media about each laboratory, as well as an RSS news feed that pulls science and technology articles from across the Defense Laboratory Enterprise.

The app improves upon information previously provided in hard copy format, or as static documents available online.

"We approached the Defense Laboratory Office and suggested [the creation of] a mobile application. It can be updated over the air and bring in news stories from news feeds across the DOD," said Dr. Bernard Reger, associate for business planning and development for the Armament SEC.

Labs can quickly update information when changes occur in their organizations, an advantage of the app over traditional print publications.

"Giving out information that's five years old can be dangerous in some cases and just not useful," Reger said. "The eSmartbook is more efficient, modern, and easily updated. As a partner to the app, we developed a web application for the labs to log in and update their data. As a lab grows into new research areas, that information will be available. The labs control the information and it is cleared for public release."

He said such information could also be beneficial for college students looking for a job, or even for government personnel looking to collaborate with other labs. Allies can use the app to foster collaboration, too.

(Editor's note: This roundup was compiled from original reports by David Vergun, Todd Lopez, Dan Lafontaine, Audra Calloway and Jason B. Cutshaw)