AF battlelabs build out-of-this-world gear for troops
June 30, 2005
RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — The list of high-tech gadgets reads like it came from a Hollywood movie script: Lasers that track space objects as tiny as 2 inches long, a camera that can see veins through skin and roving robots that boost base security.
But these aren’t fictional props for the big screen. They are among the roughly 90 cutting-edge innovations Air Force battlelabs are looking to bring to airmen in the field.
Representatives from the service’s seven labs went to Ramstein Air Base this week to find out what other things airmen want or need next. Since the birth of the labs in 1997, members have found dozens of pioneering equipment to help units do their missions better.
“[Movie director Steven] Spielberg’s got nothing on these guys,” said Lan Cawthon, chief of the Air Force’s Innovation and Technology Division.
The battlelabs aren’t like the traditional laboratory. They often can bring the gear to the front lines faster than most research and development groups because they look for technology already on the market.
For example, troops in the Middle East will soon be getting radios that have a range of 400 miles. They are the same radios that Texas-based oil companies have used to communicate with crews based on far-flung platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. Other initiatives include a machine called Vein Viewer that can capture images of veins inside a person’s limb. Another is RazorView, which uses short-pulse lasers to track tiny objects in space. The Force Protection Battlelab at Hurlburt Field in Florida has found a robot that can help security forces keep bases safe against an attack.
“We’re not a laboratory,” said Col. Pat Rhodes, commander of the Air Force Space Battlelab at Schriever Air Force Base, Colo. “The lab part of that doesn’t mean laboratory. We don’t do science. We don’t do research and development. The lab part of it is we go out and investigate current technologies and leading-edge technologies that can be applied to military applications.”
Each lab has only about 25 people and focus on such areas as force protection, information warfare and command and control.
About every two years, battlelab members visit major commands to get ideas on what units need in the field. By the end of Thursday, battlelab representatives interviewed about 80 airmen of various ranks at Ramstein. After the interviews, lab members will put together a list of the top 10 needs or technology gaps.
“What we ask for in the outreach is we just go around and interview people and say, ‘Hey, what are your needs,’” Rhodes said. “What kind of things are you working on? What kind of problem sets do you have out there ... and then we take and see if we can’t find the technology to solve those problems.”