By Dan Lafontaine, RDECOM Public AffairsJuly 21, 2016
ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. (July 21, 2016) -- Communicating in the field with military allies and reducing the logistical burden of power requirements are two significant challenges faced by U.S. Army Soldiers.
A six-person Army science and technology team convened in Libreville, Gabon, June 10-24 to work with U.S. and foreign Soldiers in a continued pursuit of solutions.
About 1,000 military personnel from 14 nations participated in Central Accord 16, the largest and most complex exercise that U.S. Army Africa has conducted on the continent. The exercise consisted of a week of classroom-based academics and a week of a command-post and field-training exercise.
Three elements of the Army Research, Development and Engineering Command were responsible for two S&T prototypes for this year's Central Accord.
Two of the command's research centers -- the Army Research Laboratory and Army Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center -- worked directly with the Field Assistance in Science and Technology advisor assigned to U.S. Army Africa. Their efforts have focused on developing and fielding translation software as well as solar-power prototypes for Soldiers to test and evaluate in Africa.
Maj. Eddie Strimel, the FAST advisor assigned to USARAF, said the technologies garnered significant interest during the exercise for their possible applications to missions on the continent.
Three scientists from the team focused on enhancing language-translation technology under development by military researchers. The capability for U.S. Service members to communicate with their African peers in French dialects is critical, Strimel said.
Strimel and Dr. Stephen LaRocca, a computer scientist and team chief of the Multilingual Computing and Analysis Branch at ARL, have led these efforts in the past year, which has concentrated primarily on collecting and analyzing speech from African Soldiers.
Nineteen U.S. Soldiers and Army civilians tested the SQ.410 Translation System, a handheld, rugged, two-way language translation system at U.S. Army Garrison Vicenza, Italy, in July 2015.
The team also recorded speech from 20 Nigerien and Malian Soldiers, during the Military Intelligence Basic Office Course -- Africa, at Niamey, Niger, in October 2015.
"It was very interesting to work with the French-speaking volunteers, most of whom were military from African partner nations," LaRocca said. "As a group, they were enthusiastic about the speech translation technology and hopeful that it would facilitate communications."
The team brought seven language-translation devices to Gabon and collected nine hours of speech, consisting of 7,778 audio files from 130 participants. The civilians and Soldiers from Gabon, Cameroon, Congo and Chad spoke 16 native-language dialects.
"This data set will be used for adapting existing speech recognition software and for testing results. My ARL group expects to identify a method to be used repeatedly for adapting technologies for world languages, like French, Arabic and Spanish, for better performance when used by communities with their own language variations and their own accents. This would likely be very useful for U.S. teams communicating with African counterparts," LaRocca said.
Two additional experts joined the language-translation research work for Central Accord 16.
Dr. Boyan Onyshkevych is a program manager for human-language technology research programs at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
"Central Accord 2016 was a very valuable experience for me in terms of collecting linguistic data for our speech-to-speech translation project," Onyshkevych said. "It also is giving me some exposure to a variety of military personnel from the U.S. and partner countries' militaries, any of who could end up being end users of some of the translation or other language processing technologies from my research portfolio."
Dr. Aaron Lawson, assistant laboratory director at SRI International, developed materials to elicit the right kinds of speech from participants. He also prepared scenarios for operating conditions such as medical domain, everyday interaction and emergency response.
"It's not enough to have good technology if users don't want to use it, just like it's not enough to have a device that fits the operational environment but doesn't perform the task well," Lawson said. "We researchers tend to focus on basic algorithm accuracy, but we also need to be continually balancing this with ease of deployment and field utility.
"People were incredibly friendly and curious about what we were trying to do and were willing to use some of their valuable time off to get us some data to improve communications between the U.S. and African forces and public in the future. Since I speak fluent French, I was able to assist U.S. Service members with translation when they needed it, which was great fun."
The S&T team also demonstrated the Rucksack Enhanced Portable Power System, a field-deployable, system of solar panels for power generation. REPPS is designed to provide a power source for Soldiers' electronic devices in remote combat locations. CERDEC first developed and began testing the system in 2010.
Representatives of the U.S. Marine Corps; Dutch Army; and the U.S. Army 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division expressed interest, Strimel said.
"The REPPS performed very well during the exercise demonstration. It highlighted the new and improved multi-USB port attachment, which was specifically designed by CERDEC for USARAF Soldiers requiring power in austere environments. CERDEC's power lab is very interested in understating the Soldiers' needs and requirements for powering portable equipment in the field so they can help reduce the logistical burden of carrying batteries during missions," Strimel said.
Central Accord is one of four regional exercises in Africa, in addition to Southern Accord, Eastern Accord and Western Accord.
The U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command has the mission to ensure decisive overmatch for unified land operations to empower the Army, the joint warfighter and our nation. RDECOM is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Materiel Command.