Technology: Improving The Future Installation

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Charles Dickens
  • Airman Magazine

In a world filled with robotics, artificial intelligence and virtual reality, it’s only natural that the military use them to their advantage. Robotic dogs can be sent on patrol to help alleviate the potential danger of safeguarding an installation. Security sensors and software enhanced with artificial intelligence can spot a would-be active shooter before devastation is unleashed and lives are potentially lost. Personnel in all career fields can utilize virtual reality to run cost-effective simulations to gauge and evaluate the preparedness of a base under various disaster scenarios.

Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, is currently testing an array of technologies that, if successful, could be implemented enterprise-wide as a cost-effective force multiplier.
One automated machine Tyndall AFB is fielding focuses on ensuring missions can be accomplished while also maintaining base beautification: autonomous lawnmowers.

“It’s communicating via GPS location back up to mission control, so they can see the exact geolocation of where the mower is whenever we’re mapping it and they can understand where it’s cutting,” said 2nd Lt. Nicholas Cap, Tyndall AFB Innovation Element co-lead, Air Force Civil Engineer Center Natural Disaster Recovery Project Management Office. “It’s also cellular, so we can communicate with it via a tablet to see how it’s progressing, what the battery capacity is, emergency stop and emergency reactivate, if we need to.”

The mowers take an average of two hours to fully charge, which equates to six hours of cutting per charge at one acre per hour. While the features of the mowers showcase the technology, it’s the overall capability that provides the mission readiness aspect.

“The mower can operate at nighttime,” Cap said. “This offers us a lot more ability and flexibility in terms of being able to cut from existing mowing contracts for certain areas that we want to isolate or that have a particular mission requirement and need. It uses LIDAR sensors, cameras and GPS, so as long as we know where it’s going and that LIDAR sensor is working, it knows where an area is, even at night, and can cut it regardless of what the conditions may be in terms of visibility.”

With the capacity to perform necessary installation upkeep during non-peak mission hours, the autonomous mowers could have implementation potential across the Department of Defense.

“Bases have airfields or certain areas that require certain maintenance for their grounds to maintain mission readiness,” Cap said. “Nesting birds present a hazard to aircraft. We see this as something that can be scalable to other bases, so if you have areas that have certain mission requirements or needs, instead of being limited by the schedules of a contract, this allows you the ability to have that programmed out and you can cut it whenever you need to.”

Looking further into robotics and automation, the robotic dog, more officially known as a Quadruped Unmanned Ground Vehicle, assists Airmen in less-than-ideal situations as a mobile sensor platform, allowing Airmen to view and get a better idea of the environment and situation.

“We can send these mobile sensor platforms that have persistent communications, continuous recording capability, thermal imaging cameras, and once they’ve identified a potential adversary, we can actually speak through the robot and challenge the individual,” said Maj. Jordan Criss, 325th Security Forces Squadron commander. “This robot doesn’t get tired, it doesn’t get hungry, it doesn’t get thirsty. It goes out on a patrol path for about six hours, comes back, and recharges while the next one goes out.”

This is a nightmare scenario for adversaries but for on-the-ground patrols, this technology will save human and K-9 lives.

“This, for us, will be a big force multiplier for places where we can’t necessarily put a fence; these will run detection for us,” said Master Sgt. Garey Watson Jr., 325th Security Forces Squadron Plans and Programs superintendent. “We put it through the ringer. We’ve climbed over rocks, we’ve fallen off things, flipped over curbs, and it gets right back up and keeps going.”

While the implementation at Tyndall AFB helps with monitoring its coastal areas, the wider appeal comes with introducing the Q-UGV in hostile environments.

“Just imagine going down range and you want to clear a corner; I’d rather have this go out than one of my Airmen go and take a shot,” Watson said. “It keeps us safe and gives us a view forward.”

In addition to the Q-UGVs patrolling an installation, Tyndall AFB is testing an AI software-based system, ZeroEyes, aimed at early detection of potential weapons being brought onto a base by identifying impressions of firearms under clothing or spotted in the open.

“The AI software can identify weapons such as shotguns, rifles and other weapon models,” said Staff Sgt. Nicholas Murphy, 325th SFS Technology and Innovations noncommissioned officer in charge. “The software [detects] 360-degree visuals of various weapon models in a database which then triggers an alarm sent to security forces (who can dispatch responders) to get there as soon as possible in an active shooter situation.”

While this technology won’t stop a potential adversary, it’s meant to be a deterrent that gives first responders something they don’t normally have: Time.

“It’s the early detection and an effort to stop an active shooter before it happens, or at least have a faster response by security forces from the notification that they’ll receive,” said Mark Shackley, AFCEC Security Forces Integration program manager.

Additionally, Tyndall AFB is fielding the Digital Twin, a virtual copy of the base’s physical infrastructure.

“Part of that Digital Twin effort was a capture of the existing floor plans, the existing drawings, all of the utility data, roads and other infrastructure, and brought that digitally into the Unity Reflect platform,” said Lowell Usrey, Natural Disaster Recovery Program Management Office integration branch chief.

While using existing information paints a broad picture of the base, the key is in the details, so the team took a different approach for the finer specifics.

“Above and beyond that, you have to go out and do some digitization to make it real,” Usrey said. “Part of what that involves is a person putting on a backpack that has LIDAR and photogrammetry, basically high-tech cameras that you can walk through a facility, and it maps out the internal parts of the facility. We took drones overhead and were able to map out roofs and some of the tougher geometry from a higher vantage point. The combination of those three systems captured the real world, or essentially digitized it.”

With the installation digitized, key decision makers, as well as other base personnel, have the ability to test how the facilities would stack up in particular instances.

“It allows us to simulate things such as, ‘Hey, let’s run another Category 5 hurricane through the middle of new Tyndall and see what happens,’” said Michael Dwyer, AFCEC deputy chief of Natural Disaster Recovery. “It would allow you to do other things such as, ‘Hey, let’s not simulate the eye passing over this time. Let’s shift that hurricane to the left, which brings the most storm surge.’”

While the Digital Twin can help to anticipate natural disaster damage, it can also be used in conjunction with the other security-oriented technologies as well.

“If it’s an active shooter simulation, it can tell you if the building’s made of cinder block, are the walls made out of plaster or are they drywall?” Shackley said. “All of that goes into factors that the simulation uses to determine what path a perpetrator would take.”

As with any technology-based system, the risk of becoming outdated is a genuine concern. As these systems are developed however, Tyndall AFB remains committed to bettering the system foundations with all being tested with end-user input, allowing the ability to be modified, accommodating new necessities and missions.

“I think over time you will see more and more capability pumped into that underlying foundation to give us more capability,” Usrey said. “We’re doing our best to create an app-like approach that can be upgraded and updated easily.”