Terminals Give Marines Bird’s Eye View of Urban Battlefield

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The U.S. Marine Corps is expanding the use of hardware that enables troops engaged in urban combat to watch recent video taken of their surroundings by unmanned aerial vehicles .

The Marines already have fielded five Video Storage Wide Area Network (VSWAN) terminals, and will deploy four more over the next several months, according to Capt. David Joseforsky, project officer for the effort at Marine Corps Systems Command in Quantico, Va.

The service also is weighing the possibility of much wider use of the systems, which are built by DataPath Communications Solutions, a Duluth, G a.-based telecommunications integration company, Joseforsky said during an Oct. 19 interview.

Marines deployed in Iraq indicated to service leaders in 2004 that they needed better access to intelligence, including video feeds from unmanned aerial vehicles, as they waged urban battles, Joseforsky said.

This type of information generally has been available only to forces at the wing or division level, but the VSWAN terminals can bring it down to individual platoons, Joseforsky said.

The terminals can receive classified and unclassified photos and other data in addition to video feeds, he said. They also include hard drives that can store up to 6 terabytes of information for later playback , he said.

The service pursued a rapid acquisition of the terminals through an urgent needs statement. DataPath won a competition in October, and the Marines were testing the first hardware units in December. The urgent needs process generally takes 90-120 days, but was sped up in this case, Joseforsky said.

DataPath initially delivered five customized versions of its DataPath ET Model 2000 Portable terminal to the Marine Corps’ Tactical Systems Support Activity at Camp Pendleton, Calif. There they underwent two weeks of testing before being sent to Iraq, Joseforsky said. The primary issue that was ironed out during the testing was ensuring that the modems and other hardware could handle four streams of video imagery at the same time, he said.

The terminals are designed for use when troops stop moving for a matter of hours or more. The hardware is transported in small trucks in rugged transit cases roughly the size of suitcases and can be unpacked and set up by two troops in less than an hour, Joseforsky said.

Data from unmanned aircraft like the ScanEagle system, which can loiter over an area for up to 12 hours, is transmitted to ground stations, where it is processed before being sent via satellite to the troops equipped with the VSWAN terminals, Joseforsky said. Analysts process the video imagery to point out buildings, people and other potential targets, he said.

Joseforsky said the terminals were used during the most intense combat in Fallujah. They are still in action today, Joseforsky said, although he declined to be more specific due to classification restrictions.

Alan Carson, DataPath’s senior director of government sales, said the VSWAN terminals are saving the lives of U.S. troops by enabling them to see around corners without exposing themselves to enemy fire.

The additional VSWAN terminals to be fielded over the next several months will be towed behind or built directly into vehicles, rather than packed in transit cases and then loaded onto trucks , Joseforsky said. These units will have their own power supplies, air-conditioning equipment and shelters, he said.

The Marine Corps likely will decide by February or March whether to make VSWAN terminals much more widely available to its troops , Joseforsky said.

Carson said DataPath hopes to build on its work for the Marine Corps and provide other systems to support U.S. military operations that are increasingly reliant on information. The company already has sold similar trailer-based systems to the U.S. Army through the service’s Joint Network Node program, Carson said. These systems are being used today by Army units such as the 3rd Infantry Division, Carson said.

“Commanders want to have access to the same collaborative capabilities in the field as at their desks,” Carson said in an Oct. 10 interview.