The U.S. Air Force is testing dozens of wearable technologies as part of an experimental program nicknamed “Batman.” Officials with the Air Force Research Laboratory showed off some of the innovative products during recent exhibition at the Pentagon.
The gear included a wrist mount designed to hold a cell phone or tablet computer, gloves with red and fiber-optic lights, and a new-and-improved signal gun for air traffic controllers. They’re all part of a family of wearable or portable technologies for the so-called Battlefield Air Targeting Man-Aided kNowledge, or Batman, demonstration program.
“Batman is a program that helps find innovative technologies for our operators,” ranging from those in the kill chain such as joint terminal attack controllers (JTACs) to those in the life chain such as pararescue jumpers (PJs), Lt. Anthony Eastin, a behavioral scientist with the program team, said during an interview at the event.
The advanced technology program, established in 2003 after a fratricide in Afghanistan, has already transitioned more than 20 technologies to airmen on the battlefield. “Everything that you see me wearing, a lot of it has actually been given to operators,” Eastin said. The following is a sampling of what was on display:
The wrist mount was added to the Batman kit after JTACs and PJs preferred using smart phones rather than small, chest-mounted laptops, such as the MR-1 GoBook made by General Dynamics Corp. and its now-defunct Itronix subsidiary, Eastin said.
“We noticed that operators were moving away from that,” he said. “They want to have cellphones and tablets. So what did we do? We created a wrist mount so that they can put their mobile phone devices right there.”
The mount is compatible with any number of mobile devices, including the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 and S6. The Android-based devices are capable of running military apps also developed by the program, such as Batdok, which helps leaders monitor the health of their troops by streaming heart rates, blood-oxygen levels and other vital signs collected from body sensors.
The Army liked the wrist mount so much that it purchased some 500 of them, Eastin said.
Gloves with Lights
The team is also experimenting with embedding lights into gloves. They showed off a pair with red lights mounted on the index fingers to help JTACs be able to write without interfering with their night-vision goggles and another with white fiber-optic lights near the wrist for general illumination.
The fiber-optic design might have multiple applications in the field because of the ease with which different colors can be employed, according to Lt. Caroline Kurtz, human factors engineer with the program team.
“JTACs — they’re only going to use it for writing, so red lights are going to be best for them because they don’t want it to interfere with their night vision,” she said. “But let’s say the PJs, on the other hand — maybe they want one that has ultraviolet light so that blood is now visible, or maybe they want one with infrared so that they could signal to each other. So there are all these different options on the light spectrum that we can play on depending on the mission.”
What’s more, fiber-optics prove useful for the airmen who prefer to cut and otherwise manipulate their gloves to improve dexterity, Kurtz said.
“Guys like to manipulate their equipment, especially gloves,” she said. “They love to cut off the fingertips because they need that dexterity, especially the thumb and trigger finger. If these guys do that to this glove, there goes the LEDs and the entire functionality of the light. But if you incorporate fiber-optics into the glove, no matter where you cut the fingers off, you’re going to have that light displayed.”
Smaller Signal Gun
The officials also showed off a prototype of smaller signal gun for air traffic controllers.
“We’re this team that finds a solution, essentially, so the combat controllers, they came up to us with this problem and said, ‘This is what we have to carry with us in order to signal to aircraft,’” Eastin said. “The problem with this is that it’s big and it’s bulky.”
Like they did with the other products, the officials contacted a company working on similar technology to discuss developing a prototype. “We went ahead and created this light gun system,” he said. “It’s a lot smaller and it’s a lot lighter.”
What’s more, the device uses the same type of batteries that they’re already carrying – and it’s small enough to fit into their pocket.