Soldiers had no consistent way to submit reports; many carried old-fashioned “green books” for handwritten notes, while some tried to set up homegrown databases. And report writing varied from camp to camp. The need for something better was obvious. In 2005, DARPA started tackling the problem at Fort Hood, TX, with the help of returning soldiers from the First Brigade Combat Team. Programmers from companies that contracted with DARPA (including Ascend Intel, where Slaughter is now director of business development) interviewed soldiers to learn what they needed.
A prototype of the system was shown to soldiers for the first time during a training exercise at Fort Hood in April 2006, and in January 2007, it was introduced in Iraq. There, programmers observed how the troops used it; they collected feedback and quickly made changes. Finally–with help from the Rapid Equipping Force, an army unit devoted to quickly moving new gear into the field–the system reached the 1,500 patrol leaders using it now. Deploying it widely required dealing with two main challenges raised by Iraq’s spotty data connections: how to synchronize scattered copies of the same database, any one of which a returning patrol leader might modify, and how to give soldiers multimedia information without crashing the system. One solution was a network that carefully rations out bandwidth. For example, the default mode for any photograph is a thumbnail version. A soldier has to click on the thumbnail to see a larger version and will get a response only if bandwidth allows.
“This is something I’ve heard from a couple of generals: there are lots of technologies that get pushed out to Iraq because engineers want to help, but they are niche applications,” says Mari Maeda, the DARPA program manager in charge of the effort. “This application is broadly used by patrol leaders, on a day-to-day basis. I think the impact is very, very large.” O’Neal offers an even less restrained assessment: “Best technology I’ve seen for small units in the past 40 years.”
Walter Perry, a senior researcher at the Rand think tank in Arlington, VA, and a Vietnam-era army signals officer, also welcomes the new system. Perry works with a Pentagon-wide task force that has been trying to combat the scourge of IEDs through advanced intelligence gathering and new kinds of sensors and detectors. “One of the very first things we did in looking at the IED problem was to recognize that the army is trying to fight an insurgency with a pretty blunt instrument,” Perry says. “This is about 90 percent police work and 10 percent violent conflicts. Patrols–the cop on a beat–fill out a report saying, Here is what I did. You get situational awareness.” And that is of key importance in fighting IEDs, he says.
Data center: The new software documents the fabric of life in Iraq. In this mock-up (which does not reflect accurate data), a Baghdad neighborhood is set off by a purple boundary, and places, people, and events are marked by color-coded icons. Soldiers can click the icons and scroll through lists for more information. For example, thumbnail photos showing the aftermath of an IED attack appear next to the list. Thousands of photos are stored in the application’s database.
Courtesy of DARPA