New Portable Surveillance Receivers 'Arm' Israeli Troops

For Israeli troops, getting fast access to enemy surveillance images is all in the wrist.

A new communications technology that delivers video to a receiver one-fifth the size of normal is allowing Israeli troops to see what enemies may be lurking just over the next hill or around the next corner.

The V-Rambo system, which was formally unveiled last Wednesday at a conference in Tel Aviv, is a three-inch, wristwatch-sized LCD screen that enables ground troops and pilots to view real-time video images taken by unmanned planes.

Itzhak Beni, CEO of the Israeli company Elisra Group that makes the product, says V-Rambo gives soldiers an aerial view of combat areas, which is particularly important in a dense urban landscape where military forces may not have a clear line of sight in combat zones.

The Israelis, like military forces from other countries, have been collecting video from unmanned vehicles for two decades – but typically that information was sent to one central location where it was displayed on larger receivers before it could be disseminated to ground troops or pilots who could then use that data.

The concern with this “hub and spoke system” is the lag time in relaying information from central command to the troops, says Jason D. Rabbino, vice president of global consultancy and business development for Jane’s Strategic Advisory Services, which advises corporate clients and military organizations on defense issues.

Until recently, it was not feasible to send information direct to the individual soldiers or units because the technology needed wasn’t rugged enough for military use, and was too costly.  Also, there was a risk that by sending disparate feeds collected by different reconnaissance vehicles directly to the troops, soldiers in harm’s way would be saddled with information overload

Now the technology is hardened and cheap enough – on the order of $50,000 or less for a full system that would include a receiver, transmitter, battery – and advances in technology have led to the increased use of unmanned aerial vehicles that are designated for specific fighting groups, which cuts down on the chance of such overload while giving units a better view of their theater, Rabbino says.

Being able to marry aerial surveillance to technology which can convey pictures and global positioning location to the front lines directly – which has only recently become feasible – significantly improves an army’s chances for success, says Dr. Roger McCarthy, chairman of Exponent Inc., a Menlo Park, Calif.-based consulting firm that often works on military projects.

“It’s the worst of all possible worlds for the opposition,” McCarthy says. “In a digital battlefield, once your position is known with accuracy, you’re dead.”

With the V-Rambo, information goes directly to the men and women in the field, reducing reaction time in some cases from 10 minutes to a few seconds, according to Beni.

“Instead of coordinating by voice with a central command, soldiers can see behind the hill and around the corner,” says Beni.

Reducing the size of the receiver – and ultimately the transmitter – down to the size of a wristwatch was the major challenge in developing the technology, says Beni.

Now, the receiver, rechargeable battery and flexible antenna that actually receive the images over digital radio bands weighs two pounds and can be carried in a jacket pouch or vest pocket – an important component for soldiers toting heavy weapons.

Beni says the company hopes to reduce the combined weight to about 1.5 pounds in the near future, making them even easier for troops to handle.

Although they have kept their use of this portable communications system under wraps, the video receivers have been used by Israeli attack helicopter pilots for nearly a year and ground troops on foot and in tanks started using them more recently.

While he believes conveying surveillance data directly to the front line soldiers is important, McCarthy is leery about whether the three-inch screens can relay pictures that will be clear enough for soldiers to make out. 

The surveillance video is often being shot from 1,000 feet in the air and, McCarthy believes, may come out looking “pixilated” on such a small screen. And, he adds, using zoom optics from an unmanned plane to get a closer look might come out “jerky”.

McCarthy’s company also makes a portable video receiver, which has a six-inch screen.  The receivers, battery and antenna together weigh about 2.8 lbs.  The units are part of the Exponent’s own surveillance and communication system, about a dozen of which are being used by U.S. troops in Iraq, according to McCarthy.

No matter the technological limitations that still linger with both video systems, troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are just beginning to use these technologies in combat situations, even though Rabbino says these systems are still largely in the prototype stage.

“Every military of size is experimenting with this kind of thing,” says Rabbino.

Military users, says Beni, are interested in his V-Rambo system, but he declined to say whether the United States was one of those countries. The U.S. Marine Corps had no official comment on whether it has a similar technology already in use, or in the works. 

Other branches of the U.S. Armed Forces are already customers of the company’s military search and rescue technologies. The U.S. Navy has already purchased the company’s emergency location transmitters, which offers transmit the global position of lost soldiers to aid in their recovery, which the U.S. Air Force is also considering, according to a recent company release.

McCarthy says technologies such as these video systems will eventually be deployed throughout the military world. But, they won’t be the magic bullet for combat. Such direct communication systems can have their downsides.

Military forces will need to be careful about managing their bandwidth as more of communications devices are being used in the field. And, more importantly, the use of short-range surveillance craft to relay reconnaissance can sometimes be spotted by enemy troops, letting them know that “they’re being watched by someone fairly close,” says McCarthy,

However, moving the information from a centralized location out to the edges, where action is occurring means that the military will increasingly been in the hands of the men and women in the field.

“That means your front-line troops are infinitely better informed than your generals,” says McCarthy.

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