Miniaturization: Where good ideas and technology meet

Shane Thompson, an electronics engineer with the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center at Redstone Arsenal, Alabama, displays a compact processor board, developed by AMRDEC's Image and Signal Processing Function, which performs both target acquisition and tracking. (U.S. Army photo by Nikki Montgomery)

Shane Thompson, an electronics engineer with the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center at Redstone Arsenal, Alabama, displays a compact processor board, developed by AMRDEC’s Image and Signal Processing Function, which performs both target acquisition and tracking. (U.S. Army photo by Nikki Montgomery)

AMRDEC Public Affairs

Miniaturization and advances in computing have had an enormous impact on all aspects of life — especially in the realm of digital image and signal processing.

Only a decade or two ago, appreciable computing power required to perform military-grade image and signal processing tasks necessitated large, clunky computers or racks of dedicated processors.

Now, powerful processing speeds and computational capability are common in tablet computers and even smart phones.

The U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center now has advanced computational power capabilities in a package small enough to bring complex image and signal processing technology to small battlefield weapons.

“We are leveraging advances in computer technology to push the Army’s state-of-the-art in a diverse range of military applications,” said Steven Vanstone, AMRDEC Image and Signal Processing Function acting chief.

Advances in computer technology are perhaps most evident in developments targeted for battlefield applications, Vanstone said.

“Image processing applications such as automatic target acquisition and tracking, have been developed in an ad hoc fashion, where an algorithm du jour is forced into a system with no effort given to understanding,” said Don Waagen, an AMRDEC electronics engineer. “Is this the right algorithm for this problem?”

Waagen and his team are working to shift the mindset applied to Army imaging sensor processing by understanding the nature of the measurements and by understanding the algorithms available to work on those measurements. Once the core features available in a given sensor space are understood, the team intelligently chooses and modifies available algorithms that best operate on the given measurement space, Waagen said.

One area where Army engineers applied this approach is in the development of precision target acquisition. This brings video game-style warfare to the battlefield by allowing Soldiers to select a target of interest from a reconnaissance image and send targeting information to a missile for true lock-on-after-launch engagement.

When the missile system is onboard a unmanned aerial system, it ensures the safety of the Soldier by providing excellent standoff engagement, while at the same time providing surgical precision engagement.

For this operational concept, Army researchers first had to extensively understand the feature space to overcome the enormous challenge of operating across different wavebands used by the unmanned aircraft systems and missile sensors, Vanstone said.

The team is developing this capability with the AMRDEC-developed Modular Missile Technologies 2.75-inch diameter variant of open-architecture missiles. The collaboration provides a totally government-owned seeker package, allowing precise target engagement.

“Trying to fit this kind of computation into a 2.75-inch missile constraint was unheard of until very recently,” said Shane Thompson, electronics engineer with AMRDEC Image and Signal Processing Function and the Precision Target Acquisition technical lead.

Fifteen years ago, the Army demonstrated the basic concept with a missile flight test under the Future Missile Technology Integration program. The onboard processor performed only the autotracker algorithm and missile guidance. The target acquisition processing had to be performed at the ground station and required a large computer with specialized processor boards to enable real-time running. Imagery from the missile seeker travelled to the ground station via a high-speed data link. After target acquisition processing, the target location travelled back up the datalink to close the guidance loop with the autotracker.

“Now, because of the advances in computing in small packages, we are able to perform both target acquisition and tracking on a processor board slightly larger than a credit card, which will fit within the 2.75-inch missile size constraint,” Thompson said.

AMRDEC engineers and scientists are also pursuing a number of good ideas through a diverse portfolio of science and technology projects that continually seeks increasing technological advances to enhance battlefield performance, Vanstone said.

“Sometimes, good ideas have to wait for technology to catch up,” he said.

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This article appears in the May/June 2015 issue of Army Technology Magazine, which focuses on Future Computing. The magazine is available as an electronic download, or print publication. The magazine is an authorized, unofficial publication published under Army Regulation 360-1, for all members of the Department of Defense and the general public.

The Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center is part of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, which has the mission to develop technology and engineering solutions for America’s Soldiers.

RDECOM is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Materiel Command. AMC is the Army’s premier provider of materiel readiness–technology, acquisition support, materiel development, logistics power projection and sustainment–to the total force, across the spectrum of joint military operations. If a Soldier shoots it, drives it, flies it, wears it, eats it or communicates with it, AMC provides it.