In the heat of war, the lives of American soldiers and innocent civilians often depend on the ability of fighter pilots to hit their intended targets. It’s a precarious undertaking that involves clear communication and great precision to avoid collateral damage or friendly fire.
Such endeavors traditionally have involved the use of maps and verbal communication between ground forces and pilots, a process that can take as long as an hour to execute in some instances—enough time for the intended target to attack first or move out of reach.
Daniel Patt, a 35-year-old program manager with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, has dramatically altered this dynamic with a new system that enables ground forces and combat aircrews to share situational awareness and weapons system data securely, and in real time, allowing quicker targeting and greater safety for our troops.
“He is completely revolutionizing the way warfighters operate in battle,” said Arati Prabhakar, director of DARPA.
Patt’s newly developed Persistent Close Air Support program consists of weapons management, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and communications systems located on a modular electronics device compatible with almost any aircraft, and controlled with an Android tablet.
“His idea was to give the guys in the cockpit and the guys on the ground the same situational picture using commercial technology,” said Steve Walker, DARPA’s deputy director. “He brings together security, encryption and workable technology.”
Referring to the accidental bombing of a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Yemen earlier this year, Pamela Melroy, deputy director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, noted that “this technology is aimed at never letting that happen again because there is perfect, seamless coordination and total awareness between the guys on the ground and the guys in the air.”
“It’s hard to quantify how many lives will be saved,” she added.
Close air support—which is defined as the delivery of bombs or other munitions to protect and assist ground forces—has long been a key tactic for the military. But even under the best of circumstances, the traditional system of paper maps and voice instructions can take far too long. This groundbreaking system speeds up decision-making during battle.
When the Marine Corps tested Patt’s system during a training exercise in March 2015, ground forces identified a target and sent its position to an aircraft, which fired a non-explosive, precision-guided missile from 4.5 miles away, hitting exactly where it was supposed to. Total elapsed time: just over four minutes—two minutes shy of the delivery goal of six minutes.
The system also was tested on an Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt II attack aircraft. This test showed that a warfighter on the ground could, in direct coordination with a pilot, command a successful airstrike with as few as three clicks on a tablet.
Unlike most technological breakthroughs for the battlefield, Patt’s system took just a few months to get into the hands of the military—not the usual five to 10 years.
“The military is used to long-term platform development, and Dan has overturned that precedent,” said Brad Tousley, director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office.
Patt personally coordinated with the Marine Corps, the Army and Special Operations to deploy elements of the system during operations in Afghanistan, as well as to assist in protection and evacuations of U.S. embassies in Libya and Yemen.
The software Patt developed has been spreading to other sectors. At the most recent Super Bowl in California, for instance, the FBI used it to help coordinate air and ground security. The Secret Service and Department of Homeland Security also are adopting it for some operations.
In addition, Patt and other DARPA personnel tested a prototype of the system in 2014 to identify the location of firefighters and aircraft in expansive wildfire zones. No one wants a repeat of what happened in 2013 when a wildfire killed 19 firefighters in Arizona.
Bringing about change, particularly in the military, is no easy task, said Prabhakar. “We are talking about people who are fighting wars. You don’t want to mess up.”
“Dan is a guy who sees what is possible,” said Prabhakar. “It’s such a personal conviction and drive within him.”
Patt said the system he developed is “fundamentally about a set of tools that allows people to team up together better.”
He added, “A theme around a lot of the projects I work on is teamwork—allowing greater cooperation and efficiency, people to people, and people to machines.”