P-to-P in wartime

The recent O'Reilly Peer-to-Peer Conference featured an interesting discussion of the uses of P-to-P technology in the battlefield. A panel discussion entitled "Military Applications of P2P," featured Earl Wardell who is on special assignment for the army to figure out how to improve critical communications using P-to-P.

According to Wardell there is a small group within the armed forces that understands the value of the technology and wants to use it to speed up combat communications. But he notes that the government reacts slowly to change and, unlike the business operators, is often given more money to compensate for its failure to be efficient.

But since Sept. 11, Wardell says the government has realized that it must make better use of technologies used by the private sector. According to U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation reports, Osama bin Laden and his supporters clearly understand the benefits of a decentralized communications network that does not depend on one, vulnerable, central information exchange.

The U.S. military, on the other hand, has been using large-scale client/server systems that are more vulnerable to attack. Panel member, Michael Macedonia, chief scientist and technical director for the U.S. Army Simulation, Training, and Instrumentation Command, said the army is now interested in building networked P-to-P environments where soldiers can train in simulated battle conditions without a vulnerable central server.

Over the next three to five years, Macedonia says the army foresees the need for highly networked, powerful mobile computers to support what he calls "simulation-on-demand." He cited one vehicle simulator program, called the Close Combat Tactical Trainer, which allows 40 crews to simultaneously train on Bradley tanks or Abrams combat vehicles in virtual environments, from Central Europe to Fort Hood. The 40 modules are networked over Ethernet allowing crews in various locations to train together in a virtual large unit.

Eventually, Macedonia says the army would like all soldiers to be wearing a linked head-mounted display which projects synthetic environments and characters. He says users would have the physical challenge of moving through buildings or terrain while encountering virtual enemies or neutral characters. Macedonia says the army is examining using an 802.11 LAN and also has been looking into digital radios.

In a discussion with conference participants, Macedonia says augmented reality systems are being tested at the Navy Research Labs, Columbia University, and at large research labs in Malibu, California. He noted that the system at Columbia University, which was shown at SIGGraph this year, used a Dell Inspiron laptop with an Invidia graphics chip that was strapped to the user's back and tied into a head-mounted display and a high-precision tracker. He said it was useful for spatial recognition, telling the user which buildings they were looking at.

The equipment, developed by the Navy Research Lab includes a high-precision, differential GPS (Global Positioning System), good to one centimeter, that tells you which room in a building you are looking at and who is in that room, says Macedonia. He says the system can be annotated to tell other combatants where a sniper was spotted, for instance, or where ammunition has been stored.

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