ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. (Army News Service, Aug. 8, 2011) -- Army researchers have linked tactical radios and military chat systems with cell phones, instant messaging and other commercial communications technologies as part of a wide-ranging effort to streamline collaboration across the force.
The development effort, which aligns with objectives outlined in the Army CIO G6 Common Operating Environment initiative, leverages a new Microsoft collaboration product, Lync 2010, through a Cooperative Research & Development Agreement with the company, and could be extended to other collaborative software tools.
The integration of emerging commercial software with the existing tactical communications infrastructure has far-reaching potential as the Army expands communications for Soldiers at the tactical edge, shares more battlefield data with NATO allies and equips users with tools to help minimize information overload, service officials said.
“Whether you’re at the command post or on patrol, you know when someone is online and what the best way to reach that person is,” said Osie David, Fire Support Command and Control system engineer and former solutions architect for the Army’s Project Manager Mission Command. “Things are still in the early prototyping stage, but there’s certainly potential to share information more quickly and easily among NATO partners and U.S. forces.”
Spearheading the effort is the Command and Control Directorate for the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command’s communications-electronics center, or RDECOM CERDEC C2D. Engineers there have integrated Lync and its predecessor, Office Communications Server 2007, with a widely used military situational awareness application called Force XXI Battle Command Brigade and Below/Blue Force Tracking, or FBCB2/BFT.
A Microsoft Office user can then trade chat messages with an operator of FBCB2, which enables warfighters in vehicles and aircraft to exchange messages, such as the location of an enemy or an improvised explosive device, and share a common operating picture of the battlefield.
“The potential for lower echelon forces to have a richer communications capability between stationary command posts and mobile FBCB2-equipped platforms by leveraging this new technology is huge,” said retired Lt. Col Jeffrey From, science and technology specialist at the Mission Command Battle Lab at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
“I was impressed with the work CERDEC C2D has done integrating Lync with our existing Army mission command systems, and I see great potential in a system that can operate at the tactical edge, in the lowest bandwidth environment,” From said.
To bridge the gap between military and commercial text-based chat applications, engineers used the Universal Collaboration Bridge, an integration tool developed by CERDEC C2D and transitioned February 2011 to Product Director Common Software.
Beyond text chat, CERDEC also used Lync to enable voice communication between Microsoft Office users and Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System radios, cell phones and Voice over Internet Protocol phones. With a mouse click, an individual could place a call to another user and reach him or her on whatever communication medium was available. There was no need to remember phone numbers or take extra steps to call a radio.
“If a general is on a phone or a (computer) and needs to communicate, you could actually bridge that with a mobile radio unit and have that connection be seamless,” said Phil West, a principal technologist with Microsoft. “If an officer is speaking with an individual, it can traverse a number of types of systems.”
The users’ “presence” was also integrated into several applications, letting others know whether someone was available to collaborate.
Adding commercial collaborative systems into the battlefield architecture is challenging for several reasons, especially because the network and communications infrastructure has been designed specifically for a tactical environment that must support a variety of military-specific applications, said Danielle Duff, one of the engineers leading the project for CERDEC C2D.
Microsoft Lync interfaced with the existing infrastructures and added capabilities to the user with little overhead or changes to existing tactical architecture, Duff said.
Moreover, the adaptability of the technology’s software development kit can enable the Army to certify the application once and then reuse it across multiple domains, said Ron Szymanski, CERDEC C2D Chief Architect for Science and Technology.
The CRADA between CERDEC C2D and Microsoft represents only the second joint research project Microsoft has throughout the federal government and the Department of Defense. The initial agreement was signed in 2009 and focused on the applicability of multi-touch technologies to command and control systems. The agreement was extended in 2010 and includes hand-held devices, apps development and cognitive-based software.
The CERDEC C2D team is now exploring other potential uses of the technology, such as adding Lync presence and functionality into Command Post of the Future. CPOF ties together collaborative capabilities and allows commanders to share the COP through map displays, charts and other data.
Users were able to share screens between CPOF and Microsoft Office, enabling real-time bi-directional data exchanges, during the initial experiment through a separate plug-in developed by CERDEC C2D. However, further maturation and integration would be required to fully realize this capability, officials said.
“Instead of re-engineering each warfighter application to be collaborative, this solution allows users of existing applications to collaborate with other users and their applications,” said Brian Freeman, an engineer supporting the project. “This includes both government off-the-shelf and commercially available off-the-shelf desktop applications like Microsoft Office and Open Office. The potential is huge.”
The initiative places emphasis on leveraging commercial solutions to the maximum extent possible, Szymanski said. One benefit is that it could reduce technology development costs because products can be shared across many programs of record.
“The other benefit is that it enables faster collaboration with coalition partners because we don’t have to worry about the information assurance implications of releasing commercial off-the-shelf software to foreign groups,” Szymanski said.
With NATO allies also investing in OCS/Lync, the technology could potentially serve as a way for the U.S. to share battlefield data and information with other countries without providing them an actual system, David said.
“They can see the screen, they can collaborate in near real-time, so we can potentially use it for sharing the common operating picture,” he said.
Within U.S. forces, CERDEC C2D’s work could also serve as a “bridge” improving communications between deployed Joint forces and the supporting workforce at home, as well as within both groups, West said.
“Lync can ultimately improve organizational efficiencies across a broad spectrum of environments,” said Brett Burland, chief of the Science and Technology branch at the Mission Command Battle Lab. “It could be used in our more stable installation environment, and through the improvements CERDEC C2D has developed, it can function just as well in a deployed, tactical force.”