Where 2.0 Preview – DARPA's TIGR Project Helps Platoons Stay Alive

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A modern soldier depends as much on good intel as a reliable rifle. Gone are the days when decision-making happened at the highest levels of command and the non-coms just did what they were told. In a modern world of insurgencies and roadside bombs, the soldier on the ground needs to have as much data as they can, as quickly as they can. And when DARPA decided to try and solve the problem, their solution was TIGR, the Tactical Ground Reporting System. Sam Earp, President of Multisensor Science, works as a consultant to DARPA and Mari Maeda is the program manager at DARPA. Both will be speaking about TIGR at the O’Reilly Where 2.0 Conference in May.

James Turner: Why don’t you start by describing the problem that soldiers on the ground face today and how TIGR tries to help?

Mari Maeda: Okay. Well, just as you described, the problem is that in the past, the military has focused on feeding the information up the chain-of-command. The decision-makers are the colonels and generals, and so the soldiers on the ground are just collecting information so they can make big decisions. Now in Afghanistan and Iraq, really it’s the patrol leaders, soldiers on the ground, lower echelon soldiers, captains, lieutenants who need to make decisions. Are they going to take this route or the other route? Should they knock on this door or that door? Has this person ever been seen before or cited before? Does he have useful information? All of those day-to-day decisions are being made at the lowest echelon and we really needed a tool to serve those low-level soldiers. And that’s why TIGR was created.

JT: Can you describe a little bit about exactly what TIGR gives to the platoon level?

tigr.pngMM: Yes. TIGR has a map-based user interface. And so instead of having a folder full of reports telling you what happened here and who they met with, here’s a patrol debrief, instead of having Word files or Power Point slides, TIGR’s a map-based application where you can go and do searches by defining an area. It could be a rectangle, a circle, a polygon or a route even. And it’ll pull back all of the events and people and places, information along that route or in that region. And it ranges from census collection that was done in the location, names of all of the schools, pictures of schools, videos of an attack that might’ve taken place. Very rich multimedia information will be returned to you for the area that you defined.

And so instead of just writing a patrol report that says this happened and hoping someone might read it, you’re just really looking for geospatially relevant information for the mission at hand. If you’re going to take this route and you’re not familiar with this route that you’re thinking of taking, you can look and see how many attacks have taken place; what kind of attacks have taken place; who’s been there before. So all of that information is at your fingertips. Sam, do you have anything to add to that?

Sam Earp: Well, the only thing I would add is that one specific problem that comes up in the sorts of conflicts we’re in in Iraq and Afghanistan is that soldiers learn very — at some cost, they learn the area that they’re assigned. That is they learn the people. They learn the villages. They learn the roads. And that knowledge that they gain over the course of a deployment is often times lost. When those soldiers rotate back to the United States and new soldiers come in and are assigned a territory, then they come in without all of that knowledge. They used to come in without all of that knowledge. And that was actually a very, very dangerous period of time called the turnover of authority. And one thing TIGR has done is that TIGR has made all of that information available to the soldiers that are coming in new, as it were, to an area, so that they’re acclimated and have good knowledge of the people and the places and the roads and things of this sort when they arrive.

And this has been very important to the Army because, as I said, that turnover of authority, that change in the soldiers on the ground, was actually an extremely dangerous time for the troops.

JT: In terms of logistically how it actually works, first of all, it sounds like it’s almost like a very wiki-like process where the consumers are also, to some extent, the contributors. Is this loaded up before they go on a patrol? And can you describe at all physically what it is? Is it the kind of thing they dock when they get back to headquarters and it gets uploaded with whatever they did when they were out?

MM: Right now, TIGR is used back at fixed sites. They’re not networked and used in vehicles or as they’re doing patrols. And we are actually going to be doing that. So within the next six months or so, we will have a version of TIGR that you can use in the mobile environment. But today, TIGR’s used in the major FOBs and joint-security stations, JSSs and other outposts where soldiers come back to after patrols. And TIGR’s used not only after patrols but, of course, before the patrols, before the missions so soldiers can do mission planning, et cetera, on TIGR. Today as TIGR’s being used in Iraq and Afghanistan, there isn’t any specific mobile platform or computer that’s used.

JT: Now, do the individual installations talk to each other as far as keeping each other synced up?

MM: That’s the unique feature of TIGR. TIGR is somewhat like Google Maps and Wiki, but the backend of TIGR was very, very carefully designed so that it would work over military networks in these tactical environments where, as you can imagine, the network is very fragile and the bandwidth is sparse. And we did not want to overload the bandwidth, the network. But, at the same time, we wanted the soldiers to be able to share photos and videos and media rich information. So the backend infrastructure of synchronizing the servers in really the right way. What to share across the servers was something that we put a lot of thought into.

And so basically what we do is we create a network overlay, a network layer of servers. And we’re not just talking about half a dozen servers; we’re talking about many, many, many servers both in Iraq and Afghanistan. And these servers form a network. And they will share just the information that needs to be shared across the servers. So things like metadata, text, thumbnails are shared across all of the servers. But heavier information like the full-blown Power Point slide or video, you’ll only get the metadata for that. And if anyone pulls that information locally from a remote server, there’s a caching mechanism that takes place. So, again, you want to reduce the bandwidth usage as much as possible.

JT: Beyond the network issues, what are the other challenges of designing a system for deployment in a warfront environment?

MM: There’s lots of challenges. Sam, do you want to take that question?

SE: Well, I would say there are many, many challenges beyond the network. And I would like to add that in regards to the network, TIGR is engineered in a way that a commercial product would never have to be engineered. So I would like to say that the network engineering that went into TIGR is considerably different than you might find for a commercial product. But I would say another challenge [is that] TIGR was introduced into a warzone. And it was introduced without any prior training originally. So we were actually in the middle of a war training soldiers to use this system. And what was interesting about it is it was basically the soldiers, naturally, are very busy. And they were in the middle of a war. And the last thing they wanted to do was take time to learn something new.

So there was a very, very skeptical audience when it was introduced. And so the value of the system really had to be there for the soldiers to put in the time. And it was there. And the soldiers found the system very intuitive, easy to use and easy to learn. So it really spread virally in some ways throughout Iraq and now Afghanistan.

MM: Just to expand on that point, the first brigade that used TIGR, that brigade actually did train in the US but once TIGR was introduced in Iraq, the other brigades discovered it. And then, as Sam described, then we had to do on the fly training of all the new users. And we have really a large number of users in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as in the States. And just designing a really intuitive user interface is actually really challenging. Just the placement of the buttons and the behavior of the windows and interaction with the maps, how that takes place intuitively, it’s a challenge. And I would say Google Maps is pretty easy to use, but TIGR is actually a lot easier to use than Google Maps and very intuitive. And that’s where we get a lot of our praises because you don’t have to go and spend a week training on the system like with most military systems.

JT: It sounds like though the hardware was probably just stuff that had already been proven for the environment. I’m sure that they’ve got lots of laptops and desktops that had been proved out for that kind of an environment.

MM: That’s right. That was one of the considerations when we decided to scale. And we wanted to make it a web application so that when you have tens of thousands of users, you don’t want to have to have them load new software and go and get an administrator and soldiers don’t have administrative privileges on their laptops, right? And so we made a web-based application. So scaling to a large number of users was a very high priority.

Another challenge I do want to mention is back in 2007, really the Army was not prepared to — there was no process in place to very quickly approve, certify new software, new systems to be brought into theater. And I think they’ve improved that in many ways now. But just going through the formal approval process with the military was also extremely challenging because the process was sort of in flux, changing. And you can understand their position that you don’t want some random system to be introduced to the network and possibly crash and jeopardize existing command control systems. So getting through that process was also a fairly significant challenge initially.

SE: I’d like to add that, I’m sure this is obvious, but in addition to the sorts of challenges that have been mentioned, it was a warzone. And we had people who volunteered to go to that warzone. And it was an extremely dangerous place. Logistics are difficult. You have to rely on the Army. And the Army, of course, is very busy doing other things, moving soldiers around, making sure everybody has food, making sure that the logistics are in place to support the soldiers. So we came in with a lot of equipment. And, of course, we work with the Army and fly by helicopter and do all of those things. And all of those logistics, even communications, can be very, very difficult indeed. So that in essence, some of the folks supporting TIGR were often times — they truly have to be independent. They’re out on their own in an area that really isn’t very accessible. And they have to make decisions and figure out what to do for the troops on their own in a dangerous and very austere environment. So it’s not a normal environment in any sense.

JT: Just out of curiosity, when you’re developing an intelligence 2.0 application for the military, what are you developing it in?

MM: Sam, do you want to take that?

SE: Do you mean the tools used to do the development?

JT: Yeah. What languages are you using? What’s kind of your infrastructure for it?

SE: Well, primarily right now it’s C#, and it’s a Microsoft infrastructure. But we’re flexible. And, in fact, are converting to a UNIX flavor also. You need a database, right? And the GUIs is being supplied by the browser, which is — right now, it’s Internet Explorer. And in some ways, we’re constrained by what the Army will permit on its network. So I think the intent is to move towards open source tools of various sorts. And we’re not quite there yet. TIGR was developed over a couple of years. And, as you might imagine, it developed while the developers were deployed. And the functionality in TIGR has changed and increased in various ways based on feedback from the troops. So, in a sense, we’re always playing catch-up.

It’s not quite as orderly as one might hope because the troops are in love with it and there are many, many users at this point. And they all have opinions about what it should do. So we’re in the middle of it listening to the troops and in the meantime, also trying to build to modern open standards. I would say one thing that probably hasn’t been mentioned is the imagery in TIGR is some of the best the soldiers see anywhere at any time. And this has meant a great deal to them because a map, a topographic map or something like that doesn’t quite do it for a patrol leader. The patrol leader is very interested in the height of buildings. Buildings that have been destroyed and might not be there anymore. The exact nature of the terrain by the side of the road. Where the turns are. Where the blind spots are. Things that are much easier to visualize from imagery than from a map. So we have worked hard to make sure that our imagery is as good as it possibly can be. And, in fact, it has really made a lot of difference to the soldiers.

JT: Now, do the soldiers capture that imagery as they’re out on patrol? Or do you kind of do it in advance of their work?

MM: It’s in advance of their work. We have a separate process to update the imagery. It’s possible for a soldier to take a cut and paste image taken by UAV and put it into TIGR. But in general, we’ve got sort of base map layers and they consist of satellite collected imagery. And we enhance it with even better resolution imagery for our different cities in different regions where they’re available. But we’ve really streamlined the process so that the TIGR users have access to really the best imagery.

JT: One question I have is whenever you’ve got information that’s at least partially being sourced by the users, you always have the question of how do you kind of control the content so that you don’t get a mess? You don’t get people either putting inane things in or people putting their opinions in or things like that. Have you had that problem at all?

MM: We haven’t really had that problem. And it’s partly because everybody knows that they’re entering information for everybody’s benefit. So they’re not going to enter garbage. At the same time, there are certain missions where you needed to put a lot of information in that was only useful for their own unit, that only they themselves could understand, but it did really clutter up the map. What we’ve done in TIGR is that you’ve got really great discriminating search capabilities so you can search by date and time, unit names, location, types of events. And so you can do a lot of filtering if you don’t want to look at all of the garbage.

And I can tell you that over these few years that TIGR’s been used, the growth in the content’s been really amazing. And if you just look at a mile square in the middle of Bagdad and see how much stuff you find in TIGR, it’s just growing and growing and there’s a lot. And so you just don’t want to do just an anytime search for even a square mile area in Bagdad because you’ll get too many hits. But because of the search options — so you can say, “I just want to look at things from the past 30 days.” Or only these types of events, friendly activities or enemy activities or just stuff related to census collection or looking for these names. You can really reduce the amount of returns that you get and you’re not bothered by clutter.

SE: The other thing that struck me is the value of information depends on who’s looking at it. So that things that a general might not be interested in, this culvert on this road is open. Okay? Might be of real importance to a patrol leader. So the very fine-grained information that a senior level commander may not really need or be interested in for his or her situation awareness is of critical importance to those patrol leaders. So while we don’t find a lot of garbage, when I say garbage, I mean things that are of no value to anybody being put in the system, you do get different views of some of the information depending upon what echelon you’re talking to, what unit you’re talking to. Things that are important to one group may not be important to another.

JT: At least from a public perspective, I don’t think people are used to DARPA working on things that go directly into the field; [they] tend to be thought of more as doing next generation research and prototyping. Was this an out of the ordinary project for DARPA? Or is it just a lot of this type of work we don’t hear about?

MM: I don’t think it’s an out of ordinary. There are a few systems that are actually being used in the field that DARPA worked on. I mean if it’s wartime, you need to kind of step up and do things that are needed if they’re not being done by other organizations. So it’s definitely not unique. But, yes, we do tend to work on next generation systems.

JT: The insurgents we deal with regularly seem to have become masters at repurposing consumer technologies like cell phones and the internet whereas the US seems to largely work with monolithic government contracts. Are there things we could be doing better to leverage some of the technology that’s already available to pretty much anyone who has a wallet?

MM: Yes. Yes. [Laughter] Let me just leave it at that.

SE: I would say that some of the issues may not be as simple as they appear. I would point especially to security issues.

JT: You’ll both be at the Where 2.0 Conference talking about the project, what can people attending the panel expect to hear?

MM: They will hear sort of our discovery process of what soldiers really need as they go on missions and the types of wars we’re fighting now. They’ll also hear about the — and I don’t think we’ll go into deep detail, but in some detail — of the architecture that we’ve built that makes it unique and very different from commercial systems, map-based systems and really interesting use cases that we’ve uncovered.

SE: Yeah. I would just add there are areas that are of significant contrast with commercial practice, both good and bad. And our ability to innovate is somewhat constrained. And I think some of that may come through but also the opportunities. I mean one way to think about it is that in our private lives, we have email and Blackberry and all kinds of good connectivity everywhere. And soldiers don’t. They don’t have that. And so the question is why? And what can we do about it? And how is it useful to a soldier? And I think TIGR largely helped answer that question.

JT: I’ve been speaking today to Sam Earp and Mari Maeda who are going to be speaking at the O’Reilly Where 2.0 Conference in May. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us.

MM: You’re welcome. Thank you.

SE: You’re welcome. Thank you.

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