The battlefield is a lonely place. Picture the scene: your colleague is bleeding out, you're under fire and, though highly skilled and trained to an exceptional level, you don't posses the knowledge or experience to save them. To make matters worse, there's no time to move the injured soldier back to the safety and expertise at your base camp. Any second lost is second closer to their loss of life. A nightmarish scenario – and one in which you'd want someone by your side.
It is, however, a situation in which augmented reality could be a lifeline, explains Tyler Harris, an orthopaedic hand surgeon for the US army at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The R-7 is a pair of seventh generation AR smartglasses created by the San Francisco based Osterhout Design Group (ODG). It became available for enterprise applications in January 2016 and, as part of a current venture between ODG and the military, could allow soldiers to help one another much more quickly.
"There are procedures that would be appropriate to be done by non-surgeons with prior training, over-watched by a physician," says Harris. A less experienced soldier tending to an injured party in the field can slip on their R7 glasses, while Harris, back at base, does the same. Harris then sees the injured party through the eyes of the soldier thanks to the glasses.
This 'telepresence' allows him to telestrate – draw – on the image so the soldier in question can follow his instructions: "It then seems to the soldier in the field that the lines are actually appearing on the patient. I can mark in a line where an incision should be, or if the remote medical care provider is inside the body, I can point out which anatomic structures they need to be aware of."
In terms of hardware, Harris would like to see more lightweight devices with longer battery lives and less heat generation but says the tech could also be useful in military medical training. The US Army Special Operations Command is planning to include an AR component in a scheme called the Battlefield Emergent Stabilization Skills Effort. "We see great potential for augmented reality, not just on the battlefield, but also for initial sustainment training of individuals," he says, "especially the training situations that are not commonly encountered in a peacetime setting. There's a potential to overlay traumatic injuries in an augmented fashion - chemical injuries or radiation burns that you might not typically see otherwise."
360 vision and line of sight weapons
The project is a fairly jaw-dropping use of technology which joins a long history of augmented reality innovation in the military beginning with Louis Rosenberg's 1992 Virtual Fixtures, one of the first AR systems, which he developed for the US Air Force.
In 2017, AR is being used to approach the business of saving lives more effectively, efficiently and, crucially, safely. Take the Circular View System (CVS) created by Ukrainian developer Limpid Armor to increase tank drivers' visibility. Essentially a helmet with a Microsoft HoloLens inside, it is linked to cameras fitted on the outside of the vehicle. Moving images from the tank's exterior are relayed to the headset, which the soldier wears as they manoeuvre across terrain.
This is important, says the company's chief technology officer Pavel Fomenko, because "armoured trucks have a really small field of view and it's hard to operate within such a small field of view." The multiple cameras make up a 360-degree view, meaning the soldier can see through any angle of the tank, a concept explored in sci-fi shows like Star Trek in the 1990s. Furthermore, the images relayed through the headset's video screen can be overlaid with crucial information.
"Over the video screens," says Fomenko, "will be such information as temperature, humidity, wind-speed. When you use augmented reality, you see all surroundings in front of you while, at the same time, you can see all the information. So you can still use all control devices in your vehicles without distractions."
Limpid Armor began working on CVS last year - the Ukranian military expressed interest - and expects to bring a final product to the market by March 2018. The device is similar to IronVision, a Microsoft Hololens powered system produced by Elbit Systems, an arms and security company based in Haifa, Israel. Like the CVS, the device uses cameras fitted outside the tank to effectively allow a soldier wearing a headset to see through the walls of the vehicle, with the option to overlay the images with intel about the terrain and surroundings. A promotional video for IronVision claims that the driver is now safer because they can see outside without having to raise their head through the tank's hatch.
Amit Lidor, IronVision program manager at Elbit Systems Land & C4I Division, says: "The system enables the crew to see through the armoured fighting vehicle's armour without exposing themselves to enemy fire. While providing 360-degree vision, the system can also be used to improve the overall operation capabilities of a armoured vehicle by integrating features such as utilising weapons to the operator's line of sight." In other words, you turn your head and the canon of the tank moves with it, creating symbiosis between soldier and machine.
Despite the inherent competition between two such companies, Limpid Armor's Pavel Fomenko insists that his firm's main motivation is altruistic: "Our mission is to improve safety and save lives. We think it's important and we want to bring this technology to life as soon as possible."
Assisted reality instruction and drone data
Pete Jameson, chief operating officer at ODG, similarly stresses AR's potential to improve standards across various areas of defence. ODG's R7 smartglasses can, for example, be used to train soldiers to repair equipment, as they "actually know what part of the equipment you're looking at and give a step-by-step overlay assisted reality instruction." In addition, he says, the camera means that the glasses can record the procedure and later be used in training.
Getting the latest and greatest intel for situational awareness pushed to the glasses is where the future lies
"The military is a huge organisation," he adds. "It faces all of the same challenges that big companies, industries and commercial enterprises have. They have to repair and replace, deal with healthcare emergencies and deploy and move huge amounts of men, women and materials. Glasses can help with every single aspect of that."
Like Limpid Armor's Pavel Fomenko, Jameson praises wearable tech for allowing "folks to do their jobs with digital, heads-up data that allows them to keep their hands free," which is designed to increase their safety.
For instance, soldiers out on the battlefield no longer need to consult maps on tablets or laptops, instead combining this information with the literal landscape in front of them: "Let's say there's a map of some area of interest and overlaid on top of that are certain positions of bad guys, which soldiers see in real time."
This intel is pieced together by drones, satellites and aircraft that hover overhead. "There's no need for data delay," he explains, "when a drone is getting real-time feedback of bad guys in the next block and you're seeing that in your glasses. Getting the latest and greatest intel information for situational awareness pushed to the glasses is where the future lies."
The battlefield, then, could be a marginally less lonely place when you know a second pair of eyes has got your back.
The future is AR