3-D MAPS PROVIDE NEW EDGE IN BATTLE PREPARATION
At first glance, it looks like a large, undeveloped Polaroid.
Shine a flashlight on it and the film transforms into a three-dimensional holographic map that enables soldiers and commanders — without 3-D glasses or goggles — to better see the terrain in which they’re operating.
Any unit preparing to deploy can ask for one to be custom-made for its area of operations.
Run by the Army deputy chief of staff for intelligence (G-2), the Tactical Battlefield Visualization program provides deploying soldiers with these holograms, made by Zebra Imaging in Austin, Texas.
The holograms fill the capability gap where two-dimensional maps and photographs cannot adequately represent a three-dimensional battlefield, said Lynn Schnurr, the Army intelligence chief information officer and director of the intelligence community’s information management directorate.
“This three-dimensional representation of complex urban, non-urban terrain, subterranean bunkers, and other combat and non-combat environments aids the war fighter through providing high-resolution 3-D battlefield infrastructure intelligence,” she said. “[This is] critical for planning and executing combat and non-combat operations.”
Using these holograms, soldiers can improve their understanding, retention and situational awareness of the area of operations, Schnurr said.
This enables them to conduct “better analysis, mission planning and decision making, providing depth, height and feature details that 2-D maps do not or cannot,” she said. “3-D imagery levels the playing field between natives and non-natives, because it conveys imagery as it is seen by the human eye. It communicates large amounts of information quickly to multinational persons with no special map training, which results in fewer errors and oversights.”
The hologram maps are 24-by-36 inches, are scratch-resistant and can be rolled up and easily carried in a ruck or on a vehicle. To activate or see the 3-D imaging, soldiers merely need to shine a flashlight on the filmlike map.
“3-D is on everyone’s mind right now,” said Rick Black, a retired chief warrant officer 4 who is director of defense/intelligence programs for Zebra Imaging. But the 3-D on TV and in movies tricks your mind; viewers need glasses to see the 3-D effects, he said.
The holograms made by Zebra for the Army are full parallax 3-D — which means viewers don’t need 3-D glasses to view the image, and “if I point to something on the map, everyone can see what you’re pointing at, regardless of their angle or point of view or where they’re standing,” he said.
To make the holograms for the Army, Zebra Imaging uses data from the Army — classified and unclassified — along with open-source data, photos, and light detection and ranging, or LIDAR, imagery, Black said.
The goal is to give troops the ability to see their area of operations so they can better execute missions such as reconnaissance, mission planning, route planning and after-action reviews, he said. Each hologram is custom-made for the soldier or unit that requested it so that it matches the specific area of operations.
The holograms are mapped and printed in Austin and shipped into theater. The process usually takes seven to 10 days, depending on shipping times, Black said.
Plans call for one of Zebra’s imagers to be sent into theater to cut down on shipping time, he said. The company has a liaison stationed at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan who receives orders from deployed units and travels across the country to tell soldiers about the availability of the maps.
Zebra has received positive feedback from soldiers on the battlefield, said Jim Gardner, vice president for defense and intelligence at Zebra. “We’re trying to create déjà vu, where soldiers feel like they’ve been there before.”
The holograms were first introduced to the Army G-2 and senior leaders in Iraq in 2004, Schnurr said. In 2005, commanders in Iraq requested the Army provide this capability, and it received funding for the program a year later.
So far, about 12,000 holographic images have been sent to soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, Schnurr said. With operations over in Iraq, the priority is to supply troops in Afghanistan with these maps.
“We provide TBV holographic imagery support to deployed and deploying organizations,” Schnurr said. “Units can order and begin utilizing these products ... in their pre-deployment preparation.”
The feedback has ranged from soldiers reporting better situational awareness to leaders reporting they used the holograms to better analyze, assess and determine different courses of action, she said.
“Hologram technology has been employed effectively in combat operations from the squad through company levels in the current fight in much the same fashion that maps, sand tables and computer-displayed imagery are employed,” Schnurr said. “It’s a stand-alone capability that soldiers can carry without connecting to a network or the use of special equipment.”
An infantry sergeant first class with three combat deployments brought the holograms with him on two tours to Afghanistan. The noncommissioned officer, who asked that his name be withheld, also would spread the word about the program to soldiers he’d meet at forward operating bases and combat outposts.
“When you can see the complexity of the terrain you want to move around in, it really enhances your perspective and gives you a little insight, and to me, that’s the edge,” he said. “Nothing’s going to replace walking around a few days in the terrain, but anything that’s low cost to the unit and easy to get to augment what you already have, that’s a bonus.”
The Army is looking to expand on its 3-D capabilities.
“The extension of this is the real-time 3-D/2-D display, enabling real-time sets to be fed into display and used in real time,” Schnurr said. “This is true breakthrough technology.”
This capability, currently being developed by Zebra Imaging, would allow 3-D images to be updated in real time using data and satellite imagery.
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