Where do we test new technologies for future urban conflict? Abandoned subway stations, of course. This past July we took part in the Contested Urban Environment Strategic Challenge 2019 – CUE 19 for short – in New York City. – Defense Research and Development Canada
By Timothy L. Rider, U.S. Army
NEW YORK CITY — Emerging technologies being developed to support future military operations in contested urban environments faced a real test when more than 150 scientists and engineers from five countries brought their projects to lower Manhattan in July for two weeks of trials.
The Technical Cooperation Program’s (TTCP) Contested Urban Environment Strategic Challenge 2019 –CUE 19 for short — was planned for and hosted in New York City by the United States, along with its TTCP partners, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.
Participating US organizations included the Combat Capabilities Development Command (CCDC) Army Research Laboratory, Armaments Center, Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Cyber, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Center and the Engineer Research and Development Center.
“Strategic challenges address high priority issues common to all the TTCP countries,” said Mary J. Miller, Principal Deputy, Director of Defense Research and Engineering for Research and Technology. Miller also serves as the U.S. Principal for TTCP.
The CUE 19 technologies that were tested were designed to address several needs associated with future urban conflict. Examples include detecting unmanned aircraft systems, accurately mapping areas and structures, maintaining communications with and awareness of friendly activities, protecting friendly forces from explosives or vehicles, and detecting indications of potentially hostile activity.
“The overarching objective of CUE is to get greater insights into the nature of urban challenges and increase our understanding of the limitations of technologies that support operational concepts of operations,” said Miller at the penultimate CUE 19 event on July 24 at Fort Hamilton, NY.
CUE 19 experiment trials were conducted at an abandoned portion of a subway station from July 13-15, a federal office building from July 16-18, and in a cordoned-off portion of lower Manhattan from July 19-21. The locations provided the features most representative of the urban terrain: urban canyons created by skyscrapers, long, narrow — and sometimes dark — underground subway passageways, rooftops, and cavernous interior spaces.
Urban features tend to strain communications by blocking or reflecting signals, radio or GPS, “line-of-sight” avenues. Buildings and tunnels present numerous gaps in knowledge of what’s inside spaces or behind walls. Also, structures limit mobility, while thriving masses of people fill the radio spectrum and streets with traffic and activity, which further strains operational mobility and communications.
“Future operations in dense urban environments will be challenging,” said Robert Hesse, U.S. national representative and principal planner for CUE 19. Hesse is at the CCDC Armaments Center, headquartered at Picatinny Arsenal, N.J. He has organized several dense urban environment initiatives and experiments for TTCP CUE and the Army.
“Even though these scientists came to New York City knowing plenty about the urban challenges, I would venture to guess that nearly every one of them found something in these locations that they didn’t expect,” said Hesse. “That’s why we have field experiments. These technologies were developed initially in austere laboratory environments. Here, they faced a test in a relevant environment, and in some cases with Soldiers or Marines as operators.”
Forty technology projects were tested in CUE 19, each falling within the broad categories of counter-unmanned aircraft systems; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance technologies; command and control technologies; analytical models and tools, and force protection.
High daily temperatures above 90-degrees persisted with little relief throughout the field experiment. Consequently, engineers learned that sensors placed on rooftops to detect small unmanned aircraft systems need more protection from overheating. While it was understood that buildings can create clutter that impacts sensors and GPS signals, the potential for these to impact operations in NYC was more significant than expected, according to Hesse.
Engineers from different countries found ways to merge their efforts. For example, two teams of engineers — one from the U.S. and one from Australia — finalized a joint project when they met in in New York City after working together for more than a year in a collaborative software environment.
Their efforts were geared toward the development of a robotic platform — guided by a Soldier or Marines hand and body movements — that can enter into an unknown space, navigate and map it either in guided or autonomous modes, and show what it sees in augmented reality. It can even display navigation plans.
“A Soldier is not expendable,” said Geoffrey White, Defence Scientist (Soldier Autonomy), Land Division Defence Science and Technology, Australia.
“In the future we will protect our soldiers by removing them from the effects of an initial undetected threat. Virtual presence, by remote autonomous systems, is a means which will allow us to realize this. The robot will be hit first,” White continued.
The robot used in the experiments performs its mapping and navigation functions using LiDAR and other sensing modalities. It was guided by an operator using mixed reality — “seeing” through a head-mounted augmented reality display — and recognizing a Soldier’s hand gestures with help from a sensitive, hand-pose detection glove.
Coming into the event, the U.S. team’s goals were to pair an autonomous ground robot with a Soldier-equipped augmented reality to provide situational awareness. The Australian team’s goals were to bring the glove worn by the operator and the software that helped the robot to recognize the commands.
“Unifying scientists’ efforts across nations on a common problem, can be difficult to ensure both parties have the same understanding,” said White. “These issues posed a challenge on whether or not everyone involved would be able to appreciate the benefit which could be afforded by the unique combination of multiple technologies demonstrated at CUE 2019.”
“With a bit of planning, it really was remarkable how quickly and easily we were able to hit the ground at (Fort Hamilton) and integrate our efforts in just a couple days’ time,” said Christopher Reardon, a computer scientist with the CCDC Army Research Laboratory who led the U.S. portion of the joint effort.
“It was a great success,” said Jason Gregory from the Intelligent Robotics Branch of the CCDC Army Research Laboratory. Soldiers had an intuitive grasp of the interfaces and understood why the system could be important, even though the project was in early development.
“I think that’s a testament to the excellent team we put together, and proof that good science and engineering spans borders,” said Reardon.
“There is a lot of complex science in CUE 19, but the methodology for technology development is pretty basic: All projects benefit from a trial in a relevant environment to take them to the next level of maturity,” said Hesse.
“That was our goal for this, and there is no better environment for an urban field experiment than in the Big Apple itself,” said Hesse.
New York City offered unmatched realism, and the reason why is that it is a “live” city, not an artificial environment created to mimic urban features, said Hesse. The key to the event was establishing good communications and working relationships with NYC, federal and state agency personnel.
“We worked hard to assure them that we shared all their concerns for safety, privacy and having a minimal impact on New Yorkers and various government functions near where the experiments occurred,” said Hesse.
CUE 19 coordinated activities with the New York Police Department, Metropolitan Transportation Authority, General Services Administration, Department of Homeland Security, Federal Protective Service and United States Courts.
The organizations received U.S. Army safety and risk assessments. Hesse and his team went on several site visits, provided briefings and had numerous telephone conversation regarding various details of experiments.
Going in, there was not a lot of precedent for this kind of event in NYC,” said Hesse. “We learned from the experiments, but we also learned a lot about planning for CUE experiments that we will pass on to the UK team and future CCDC-led urban experiments.”
CUE 19 is the third in a series of urban-focused field experiments – the first two being in Adelaide, Australia 2017 and Montreal, Canada in 2018. CUE 20 is expected to be hosted next year in the United Kingdom.
TTCP remains a critical forum for working with allies to create and apply technology to expand collective capabilities to support shared and mutual values to protect freedom, build and protect a better and more peaceful world, said Miller.
“Ultimately we will use this information to create capabilities that increase mission success while reducing risk to our military forces in urban operations,” said Miller.