November 19, 2008 With the world’s population rapidly migrating to cities over the last century, most of the world’s military conflicts are now being fought in urban environments. Fighting in an urban environment presents innumerable problems for a force acting ethically as the three-dimensional environment restricts visibility, and offers much easier concealment for defenders and IEDS. Accordingly, the U.S. and U.K. are quickly attempting to use technology to overcome the tactics they are encountering in Iraq and Afghanistan. These latter day wars have seen the greatest advances in situational awareness technologies in history with UAVs becoming a critically important tool. Now a new class of military technology is being created for the foot soldier which might become ubiquitous in times to come – the short range throwing camera.
As in most asymmetrical military encounters of the last few thousand years, the guerrilla tactics being employed by the lesser forces in Afghanistan and Iraq usually don’t meet Jus in bello (the international laws relating to acceptable conduct in war), and overcoming these tactics without resorting to illegal conduct is very difficult.
The U.K. Ministry of Defence in particular has embarked on an innovative semi-open-source approach to many of the military tactics it is encountering by running competitions for innovative solutions. The first such competition of ideas was held in 2007 and took t one step further earlier this year when it opened the Centre for Defence Enterprise as the place where innovators, entrepreneurs and academics can propose ideas on any aspect of the UK's military capability.
One concept that emanated from the initial 2007 ideas competition was the I-Ball – a new piece of equipment designed to enable troops unprecedented situational awareness in hostile urban environs by allowing them to get a good look at the inside of a building, the next room, a rooftop, or a cellar, before physically entering them.
The I-Ball is a lightweight wireless projectile camera that offers 360-degree video coverage, even in flight. The I-Ball’s steady high-quality real-time video is viewable on a handheld device carried by the soldier. Proposed in the competition by Edinburgh-based Dreampact Ltd, the I-Ball can also be fired from a grenade launcher.
"The technology behind I-Ball is an exciting new development that has very significant potential across a range of military equipment and operational scenarios, particularly in difficult urban operations”, said Professor Andrew Baird, Director of the Defence Technology and Innovation Centre which ran the competition. "The initial development of I-Ball has been successful and shows great promise and we are considering what further development is possible."
Though most elements of the I-Ball are not new (MacroSwiss produces a short range throwing camera, and Rafael Armament Development Authority produces the Firefly camera which can be fired from a grenade launcher), Dreampact’s trump card is a new approach to image stabilisation that fully developed could have a wide range of applications across defence - from tanks to micro unmanned air vehicles.
Dreampact Paul Thompson told Gizmag that he expected the I-Ball would reach service around two years from now. “It’s early days”, said Thompson, “and while we have a working prototype that has proven the concept, we're now looking at how to take it into production. It's about two years away from being available to troops.”
"We are delighted that our idea was taken up by the Ministry of Defence's Competition of Ideas - we could not have developed it without that assistance. Although it is in its early stages, we are very excited about the technology's potential to help our troops to be better prepared for battle.
"We have overcome some significant technological challenges in developing the I-Ball technology and it's fantastic that the MOD is working with a small company like us to help develop its future capabilities in battlefield technology."
From the MoD’s viewpoint, the innovation and development of the I-Ball is a significant advance, not just in terms of technological development, but in outsourcing innovation.
"Working with Dreampact Ltd is a very good example of what we are striving to achieve at the Centre for Defence Enterprise. We particularly want to work with small- and medium-size enterprises, talented individuals and academia to ensure that we are able to equip the Armed Forces of the future”, said Dr Helen Almey, Head of the Centre for Defence Enterprise. "Anyone can submit a proposal to us and we can give feedback on proposals within a couple of weeks."
Interested parties who can’t wait for the availability of the I-Ball might consider the abovementioned existing and somewhat similar capabilities of the Macroswiss short range throwing camera and Rafael Armament Development Authority’s extremely compact image-gathering subcalibre projectile ballistic Firefly.