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The US Army’s main situational awareness system, Nett Warrior, has long promised to bring the power of apps to the combat soldier through an integrated system of smartphones and radios. New upgrades to a key precision-fires system are making that closer to being a reality.
The new PF-D represents an incremental step forward from the system that has been in use since 2004. “We have good technology now, and this makes it even better,” said Lt. Col. Chris Anderson, product manager for Fire Support Command and Control within Project Manager Mission Command.
PF-D will replace a 1.5 kilogram, Windows-based tablet that initially cost $30,000 and has become substantially outdated in the course of more than a decade’s use. “The user interface is not modern, it doesn’t work like a cellphone, like what current soldiers are used to,” Anderson said.
According to c4isrnet.com, the new device costs about $8,000 and weighs under half a kilogram, yet boasts more than 100 times the computing power of the previous version. Anderson predicts the price will drop even lower as the Army builds out its PF-D inventory, which may top 5,000 devices. They’ll go primarily to light infantry brigades for use by field artillery support soldiers including fire support officers and forward observers. Fielding is slated to begin in fall 2017, rolling out at a pace of about three brigades per year.
The software-driven system is designed to make information sharing for the soldier in combat accessible. “It’s optimized to do things more quickly,” Anderson said. Because the system is integrated into the Nett Warrior network, users will have access to multiple battlefield data inputs, rather than being constrained to the visualizations available on a single map. This should significantly increase their overall situational awareness.
Nett Warrior itself is still a work in progress, and planners had to ensure that their efforts stayed in sync with developments on the network side. “When you have two programs in development simultaneously, it requires a lot more coordination,” Anderson said. “We have to really work with the other program managers to make sure we’re synchronized, that our software is going to work in their software environment. Communications have to be frequent and ongoing.”
In building PF-D, the development team has emphasized usability, with two “human factors” engineers embedded in the program office as part of the development effort.
“Typically you don’t get much human-factor feedback until you’re at an operational test, by which time it can be too late to make any significant changes,” Anderson said. “We sent our human factors early to get feedback. We wanted to do it up front and early, rather than risk putting a device in the field that was not optimal.”
That early testing led to some design modifications, such as the inclusion of an extensive digital user guide on board the device. “It turns out people don’t want to read a 100-page manual, and they certainly won’t carry that into the field,” he said.