DARPA, the Pentagon boffinry outfit which bestrides the tech world like some mighty, erratic robot colossus with a frikkin laser beam on its head, has made a new move. The plan is to electronically tag US combat soldiers in a similar fashion to criminals under judicial restraint, the idea being that the troops can then be swiftly found and rescued if they get into trouble.
DARPA calls the plan "Individual Force Protection System", and it intends to have it taken forward by monster US defence contractor Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC). Apparently in DARPA's view, "SAIC is the only known source in the case of a follow-on requirement with the in-depth knowledge and experience with the Individual Force Protection System".
IFPS has already undergone extensive development under a previous contract. It evidently isn't ready to go yet, though, as "DARPA requires research, development and technical services to complete development". The research agency issued notice of its plan to go on with SAIC last week.
According to this presentation (pdf), given last year by DARPA officials, IFPS would consist of a small, three-inch lightweight tag attached to a soldier's uniform and a variety of vehicle-borne or portable receivers which could locate the tag even amid the busy electromagnetic spectrum of the modern battlefield. The DARPA people believe that there's no need to have GPS satnav in the tag itself, allowing its battery to last much longer, and that tracking ranges as good as 150km (in line of sight) would be possible.
All this is considerably better performance than current commercial offerings. The IFPS tags could still make sense for US ground forces even if they were fully equipped with systems such as Land Warrior, which provide a lot of digital comms nodes and GPS sets throughout a ground unit.
Firstly, defeated soldiers in an escape-and-evade situation often have to dump a lot of their equipment, so the Land Warrior terminals might well have been thrown away. Secondly, at present only team leaders carry the Land Warrior gear anyway because of its weight. The comparatively teeny IFPS tags could easily be worn round every soldier's neck along with his dogtags, allowing friendly forces to find him even if he'd lost touch with the military comms net. (There would obviously need to be ironclad security on devices of this kind, or our man wouldn't be doing much escaping and evading.)
DARPA does seem as though it might be open to some criticism on the idea that only SAIC can possibly take IFPS forward. Other companies are offering systems right now with similar capabilities, though there are differences of detail. The UK's Miltrak, for instance, uses standard mobile phone and satnav electronics in suitable ruggedised cases and is on the front lines in Afghanistan right now.
In any event, hardcore compound-dwelling libertarians will no doubt be smiling thin, snaggle-toothed smiles over their tin mugs of untaxed home-made bathtub moonshine at the news as they savour the irony. Rather than the free sons of America being tagged up and their every move watched from on high by federal helicopters (doubtless of sombre colour scheme), it seems that in fact it is the very government troops themselves who will be monitored. (theregister, 7.18.2008, Lewis Page) http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/07/18/darpa_soldier_tagging/
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