ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. (December 5, 2017) - Mission command software engineering domain experts have one thing in common: they understand how to identify the warfighter's problem.
With the Army's modernization effort poised to push technology development farther and faster than the current status quo, domain expertise will be critical moving forward.
"The hardest parts of software engineering are done before any code gets written," said Steve Mazza, CERDEC engineer. "We must constantly ask ourselves if we are addressing the right problems, and if so, are we addressing them in the manner consistent with the warfighter's needs?"
With the Army's standard system-of-systems designs, engineers must also have the expertise to foresee how a potential solution should integrate into existing and future solutions, Mazza said.
The mission command subject matter experts at the U.S. Army Materiel Command's Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center, or CERDEC, take this holistic approach each time they embark on a new system build. Each mission command research and development, or R&D, effort is designed to improve maneuverability, agility, lethality and precision for the Army's expeditionary forces up to 2025 and beyond.
"If someone says to me, 'Oh, it's just software; anyone can write the code,' then I must communicate to them that we are not just application builders," said Lisa Heidelberg, Mission Command division chief under CERDEC's Command, Power and Integration directorate, or CP&ID. "Our engineers apply algorithms, architectures and technology that must be refined and developed through research and development."
The overall approach requires engineers to directly interact with multiple stakeholders, including the warfighters, who assist engineers with requirements gathering and early system evaluations and testing.
Other Army organizations, such as Program Executive Offices and their associated Project Manager organization, also partner with R&D organizations to do the proper system-of-systems integration prior to fielding.
"We work with Soldiers at the unit level or at schoolhouses under the Training and Doctrine Command and the Maneuver Center of Excellence to help ensure we build the right solution before we transition it to the Programs of Record for final fielding," Mazza said.
CERDEC's Single Multimodal Android Service for Human Computer Interaction, or SMASH, provides one example of engineers using their domain expertise to ensure they created a sought-after capability that was not a stand-alone final product.
The SMASH application provides voice commands that allow developers to integrate advanced Human Computer Interaction modalities like gesture or speech recognition into their software. Engineers have integrated SMASH into a Soldier-worn heads-up display developed within CERDEC's Night Vision organization, which allows Soldiers to perform mission command without looking away or putting down a weapon.
CERDEC initially used a commercial voice engine that came with a run-time license.
"We researched and tested various voices engines in order to find the one engine that provided the right capability with the best performance and the best value for the Army." Heidelberg said. "We went with an open source tool, tested the system, tweaked the code, and now it is completely government-owned and in the public domain. This is part of the value added research and development brings to Mission Command."
SMASH is also integrated into CERDEC's Tactical Computing Environment, or TCE, which provides real-time situational awareness and a common operational picture across platforms - such as tablets, laptops, and other mounted and dismounted computing devices. The Nett Warrior device is another recipient of the SMASH prototype, and is currently under evaluation with Soldiers.
Another instance where domain expertise paid off was with the CERDEC's Automated Planning Framework, or APF. The APF is an autonomous work-flow capability under development that embeds real-time, Military Decision Making Process doctrinal data into standard graphics and maps associated with mission planning.
To ensure the APF met warfighter needs, CERDEC engineers collaborated with warfighters early and often, including students at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College out of Fort Leavenworth and Soldiers at Fort Stewart and Fort Benning, Georgia.
"SMEs such as retired commanders work directly with us to inform the problems we're solving and ways we are solving the problems," Mazza said. "That is why none of that can be simply contracted out."
APF is CERDEC's first step towards autonomous mission command systems, providing developers with the knowledge of integrating autonomy and traditional mission command systems.
"You have the promise of new technologies, more and more computing power, data analytics, machine learning, and different types of artificial intelligence, which requires us to work with experts in those fields," said Dan O'Neill, CERDEC engineer.
For autonomy and robotics, CERDEC teams with the U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research Development and Engineering Center, or TARDEC, to integrate mission command into driverless vehicles.
"Getting user and other stakeholder input is essential, since futuristic concepts aren't always clearly defined," O'Neill said. "A parallel challenge is the breadth and depth of the new technologies that we're trying to use to develop those innovative capabilities. If we don't leverage and apply domain expertise in those areas, we could wind up with robotic force solutions that don't really address key Soldier needs."
Understanding how commanders communicate with their teams, how to build system-of-system designs, and how to apply new technologies is an art and a science, Heidelberg said.
"As you look to apply new technology and new requirements, you need to know what will work, how it will work and what limitations you may face prior to actually coding," Heidelberg said. "Inserting the proper research and engineering upfront will go a long way towards modernizing the Army's mission command solutions with new technology."