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by Curtis Hand – photos from US Army-USMC and Iceni Labs

When the US Army updated its Urban Operations Doctrine in December 2017, it began with defining the basic characteristics of urban operations as “those operations across the range of military operations planned and conducted on, or against objectives on a topographical complex and its adjacent natural terrain, where man-made construction or the density of population are the dominant features.”

Understanding what is needed to succeed in the urban domain is a critical component of preparing soldiers for the coming decades, due to the increasing proliferation of urban centres around the globe.

“Currently more than 50 percent of the world population lives in urban areas and is likely to increase to 70 percent by 2050, making military operations in cities both inevitable and the norm,” the paper says. “In some areas, population increases have happened more quickly than local and national governments’ ability to provide adequate governance, infrastructure, security, and basic services. These shortfalls can contribute to political instability, increase the likelihood of man-made crises, and compound the adverse effects of natural disasters within cities… The sheer number of urban areas around the world make urban operations across the continuum of military conflict highly likely, even in areas where governance or infrastructure are not the underlying causes of conflict.”

It is fair to say that the urban environment has presented some of the greatest operational challenges to Coalition forces for the past two decades – and this challenge is only set to grow as more of the world’s population lives in urban areas. As a result, dominance in this sphere has required not only a doctrinal shift, but a rethink of how to best equip forces to operate effectively in an environment characterised by the unknown. One of the biggest unknowns is, at its core, a fairly simple one, but one that has presented a sizeable challenge to ground forces: knowing what is on the other side of a closed door.

Alex Giles, CCO

“What we have seen over the past decade is military forces compiling equipment wish lists that give soldiers on the ground effective means to understand the nature of the urban environment in which they are operating, and enable them to make the right decisions in the right timescales to complete the mission and return to base safely,” Alex Giles, CCO, Iceni Labs (photo, right), said. “Initially that resulted in the market responding with technologies that threaten to flood the soldier with data. Suddenly sensors were everywhere, so that the data available to the operator became almost overwhelming. Data on its own does not deliver capability, it needs to be delivered in a way that enables actionable intelligence to be derived efficiently to offer an advantage.”

The drive to deliver actionable intelligence has led the development of Iceni Labs’ SafeScan system from the outset. Designed to give users a sense-through-the-wall capability, SafeScan is a handheld sensor that uses ultra-wideband radar to detect static and moving individuals through the wall, providing operators with easily understood visuals that allow them to quickly react to developing situations.

SafeScan (above) can be used as a stand-alone solution, or integrated into the wider DUELIST system, which is where the data begins to deliver truly battle-winning intelligence. The DUELIST Situational Awareness for Small Units solution enables real-time situational awareness and decision making for terror response, building/room clearance and hostage rescue team operations.

DUELIST integrates data visualisation, sensor and user interface technologies into a software platform that can build an integrated visual representation of the dismounted battlespace for small unit manoeuvre elements. At its core, SafeScan’s radar technology is fused with inertial measurement unit motion detection and occupancy mapping technologies to build a 3D volumetric local map of the users’ track and local environment.

Presented on a connected smartphone or tablet, the map shows the user – in real time – their surroundings, their location within it, the physical makeup of their surroundings, position of friendlies and threats, and provides the ability to detect and interpret target movement patterns to identify threats. Multiple individual tracker units worn by operators, animals or drones, can also be integrated to produce a more comprehensive map of the area, also in real time.

Selected as winner of the National Security Innovation Network’s Situational Awareness in Dense Urban Environments Online Challenge in 2020, DUELIST directly supports operational requirements for novel sensing concepts that support ground teams operating in urban environments. Specifically for the challenge, teams were asked to develop a system capable of collecting information about an interior space, transmitting the data to both emergency responders and C2 elements, interpreting the data, and presenting actionable information in an intuitive manner to the operator in a time-frame of minutes to hours.

“These are requirements that translate directly into the wish lists of military forces looking at the urban battlespace and wanting to give their soldiers the security to understand what is happening inside a building before they send their troops inside,” Giles said (see above image). “And critically, it is an organic capability; we have reduced the system’s SWAP to such a level that it can slot into reconnaissance toolkits without adding to the logistical or cognitive burden of dismounted teams.”

SafeScan (photo – left) measures approximately 20 x 20 x 5cm and weighs in at less than 1.5 lbs. And while the company knows that it is not the first company to come up with the idea of using ultra-wideband radar to produce sense-through-the-wall technology; it does believe it is the first to get the system into such a small SWAP envelope.

The thinking behind the development of SafeScan is in many ways exactly what is needed by military forces looking to apply new ideas to solve old problems. The technology on which it is based comes from the medical sector, where it is used as a non-contact respiratory and movement system to accurately detect patient vital signs.

“At its core, SafeScan is essentially a remote respiratory monitor. In the medical sector this allows us to monitor patients without needing to apply contact systems that in themselves complicate the accuracy of recorded data, or manual checks that are subject to typical human error,” Giles said. “What we are doing on the defence side is applying this technology in a way that solves a known capability gap in a fairly straightforward way, it just needed to be thought about differently.

“The next stage will see our team further develop the AI side of the technology which will enable us to deliver even smarter intelligence to troops on the ground. We are looking at a system that will not only be able to say, ‘yes, there is someone in that room’, but also, ‘yes, there is someone in that room who is asleep, or highly agitated, or even whether they are male or female, or a child.’ These are all things that are in the realm of the possible for SafeScan, and we are getting some very positive feedback from our customer groups on where this might take us.”

SafeScan is currently undergoing government-funded trials by multiple users that will continue throughout 2021.