WASHINGTON: In the face of cutbacks from Congress and skepticism from Pentagon testers, the Army will roll out an improved version of its IVAS augmented-reality goggles at next week’s AUSA conference and start field-testing days later. The goal: prove that the ambitious Integrated Visual Augmentation System can combine night vision, targeting assistance, and tactical updates on a Heads Up Display – a technology historically reserved for the cockpits of multi-million-dollar fighter jets – and make it light and rugged enough for soldiers to wear into the mud, dust and chaos of infantry combat.
While Congress hasn’t voted on final funding levels for 2021, House authorizers and appropriators proposed both cutting IVAS by up to $235 million. (HASC and HAC suggested slightly different figures). A big part of the reason? Decades of painful past experience with failed high-tech projects – including a conceptually similar system called Land Warrior – and a deep skepticism that the Army could get the technology and cost under control to start fielding to troops on schedule in 2021.
In particular, the Pentagon’s independent testing arm, the Director of Operational Test & Evaluation (DOT&E), reported that many troops who tried out an early model last fall – especially elite Rangers and Special Forces – gave it poor ratings. Reliability and ruggedness were a particular concern at the November 2019 field-test, called Soldier Touchpoint 2, where IVAS was not even able to function properly in rainy weather.
But those problems were an expected consequence of getting a proto-prototype into soldiers’ and testers’ hands for feedback as soon as possible, Army officials told me. They will be fixed in the militarized version, headed for Soldier Touchpoint 3 later this month.
The difference is “night and day,” said Lt. Col. Brad Winn, who’s leading the IVAS effort for Army Futures Command. “The military one, it’s ballistic, it’s ruggedized.” By contrast, the initial Soldier Touchpoint 1 last spring used the civilian Microsoft HoloLens. Then Soldier Touchpoint 2 festooned the HoloLens with low-light sensors, infrared cameras, and other military-specific tech, he said: “We sometimes refer to the STP-2 one as a ‘Frankengoggle.’”
“You were welding and soldering and attaching things to an existing commercial system,” added his civilian deputy, Travis Thompson. “We weren’t spending our time trying to make it look pretty and be balanced [or] to minimize the size and the power and all of that” – including making it waterproof.
“We told everybody that from the very beginning,” he said. The goal was to kludge all the components together, see if the system could work at all and get feedback on what to fix before trying to come up with a final design.
Historically, Army development programs waited to get outside input until they had a polished product, which often made changes difficult or impossible to implement. The two-year-old Army Futures Command is built on the opposite philosophy, getting what Silicon Valley calls a “Minimum Viable Product” in users’ hands as early as possible and then evolving it with their constant feedback.
No effort in Futures Command has embraced this model more completely than IVAS. “The amount of soldier involvement from the beginning has been astronomically more than anything we’ve ever done on any program we’ve ever had,” Thompson told me.
Counting both the major field exercises with soldiers – the two Solder Touchpoints so far – and about two dozen smaller hands-on events focused on specific aspects of the technology, IVAS now has over 20,000 hours of feedback from more than 1,000 soldiers, Marines, and special operators, Winn told me. That’s already driven the evolution of “dozens of hardware prototypes and thousands of software developments,” he said.
Many of these are minor tweaks to make a particular feature work better (or at all). But others include major changes, like adding the ability to see live drone feeds on the goggles and reducing the sensor range in order to improve peripheral vision.
“What we envisioned IVAS to be and what it looks like in this first military form factor are not the same,” Thompson said. “If we had gone off of the requirement that my team wrote — because I was responsible for it – we would never have gotten what we have today.”
It wasn’t just actual soldiers getting an early look, either: It was also professional testers from the Pentagon’s Director of Operational Test & Evaluation and Army Test & Evaluation Command. “DOT&E’s involvement and ATEC’s involvement never would have been in this stage of a program,” he said, but getting their feedback early also improves the final product.
Soldiers and Marines will start arriving for Soldier Touchpoint 3, featuring the militarized and ruggedized IVAS, on Oct. 17. After a couple days of basic training on the new technology, the troops will use IVAS in mock night patrols, assaults, and other field maneuvers for most of the next two weeks.
They’ll also test IVAS on a larger scale. While the first two STPs involved squads and platoons, STP-3 will have roughly a company of troops, with their IVAS systems sharing data over a new tactical cloud computing network. (Extending cloud access to the “tactical edge” is a top DoD priority).
A fourth Soldier Touch Point planned for spring will involve nearly battalion of troops, Winn told me, using a further refinement of the militarized IVAS.
The Army still plans to start fielding IVAS to combat troops in fall 2021. (Specifically, the last quarter of federal FY21). It’s still negotiating the final price for the complete package of IVAS, spare batteries, cloud server, and other accessories a unit will need, Thompson said. As for any potential cuts from Congress, he said, “we will rapidly procure to whatever we’re resourced at.”
An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Travis Thompson as Thomas Travis.