SOCOM seeks collaborators on tech innovations
By HOWARD ALTMAN | Tampa (Fla.) Tribune | Published: April 30, 2014
In the "Hunger Games" movies, the bad guys use a tabletop 3-D display to help put new and deadlier obstacles in the path of the film’s heroes.
Army Special Operations forces want something like it to help manage “areas of interest,” according to an 85-page technology wish list.
The list contains dozens of “desired capabilities” for things such as through-wall imaging and high-tech tracking devices. It is part of a U.S. Special Operations Command collaboration program, managed through its Tampa headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base, that officials say helps foster innovation by allowing commandos to assess inventions and designs under real-world conditions.
SOCOM’s Technical Experimentation Collaboration gives companies, individuals and academia the opportunity to put their inventions and designs in the hands of those who might ultimately use them, said Lisa Sanders, head of SOCOM's Science and Technology department.
“This is a chance for them to give it to operators, to try it and see how it works, then give positive feedback,” Sanders said in an interview last month.
SOCOM has been running the collaborations for about a decade, according to Sanders. Three or four times a year, the command puts out the call for innovations to be assessed and holds events where operators try things out. They are usually held at Avon Park, Fla.; the Muscatatuck Urban Training Center in Indiana; and Camp Roberts in California. The next one runs from July 8-17 in Indiana.
“Any technology-based experiments conducted at the event should provide a revolutionary improvement” in special operations forces operations, according to the request for information put out last month.
The program is a rare opportunity for people to take their ideas from the pristine environment of a lab to see how it works in a field environment, Sanders said.
The urban training center offers a mini urban and rural environment, said Sanders, complete with a mini city hospital that has a power plant, laundry and tunnels.
“You can practice or assess how things work for an operator in close quarters,” she said. The tunnels allow commandos to “go underground and see if signals are affected.”
To give people a sense of what they are in store for, the program’s website lists “things to be mindful of,” including that the weather can range from wet and humid to dry and excessive heat. Anyone attending should be prepared for tall grass, snakes and spiders, the site warns.
“Do NOT Wear: Business Suit and Shoes, Shorts, Flip Flops/Sandals.”
Although the program is not designed to offer contracts, sometimes there is a device that proves so useful, it's eventually purchased and distributed to troops in the field, Sanders said.
One example is the “austere force protection kit,” a sensor device that gives commandos at small forward bases force protection capabilities. It had to be small and light enough to be portable, have display screens that tied the sensors together and was capable of operating in rugged environments. It was fielded in Afghanistan in 2011, she said.
Those interested need to apply, because space is limited.
Their designs “must be more than an idea,” Sanders said. “It has to be something that you can touch and feel, but not ready for fielding. If someone has designed a holographic device that requires a neutron generator, that’s interesting, but not very relevant. You can’t demonstrate that in a field environment.”
The command spends “well under $1 million for three events a year,” she said.
Among the capabilities being sought by Army Special Operations forces is a “3 Dimensional Table/Holographic Visualization for Command and Control and Rehearsal,” according to the U.S. Army Special Operations Command Science and Technology Gaps List.
Planners and intelligence support providers “collect data from multiple sources and need to rapidly visualize that data in a mapped 3D environment,” according to the document. “Decision makers need a more efficient tool to rapidly visualize the battlefield environment as well as the impact of planned actions or emerging circumstances.”
Army Special Operations forces are also looking for devices that allow communications in areas that are jammed by either friendly or enemy forces, smart vehicle tracking, tagging and locating, near real-time detection of explosives, and through-wall imaging among many other capabilities.
“ARSOF requires an ability to sense and distinguish a human presence through barriers and/or within structures,” according to the document. “ARSOF requires the physical characteristics of a wall...at stand off distances in order to support breaching activities.”