According to research conducted by Markets and Markets (Northbrook, IL), the military wearables market is projected to grow from $4.2 billion in 2019 to $6.4 billion by 2025. That’s a 7.2% growth from 2019 in six short years. Soldier modernization programs that increase soldier coordination, rising asymmetric warfare, and potential geopolitical conflicts are all factors fueling the growth of this market.

As soldier-carry technologies continue to expand in scope, soldier power solutions are becoming a critical operational issue. Without access to adequate power, however, these technologies (that include mobile control, communications, intelligence, reconnaissance, surveillance, etc.) become useless on the battlefield and rapidly degrade capabilities. When without sufficient power, the wearable technologies meant to help soldiers more effectively execute operations can instead put them in harms’ way.

Today’s soldiers carry the extra encumbrance of a multitude of batteries to match the demand for this needed power. A soldier may carry up to 12 separate powered devices at one time, burdening him with up to five or six different batteries. Platoons are often required to carry and supply up to 16 different batteries for a mission. While battery technology continues to improve, unfortunately the evolution cycle of batteries is not on par with the innovation cycle for delivery-powered battlefield tools. So how are militaries working to combat these issues and reduce “battery fatigue”? Solutions to this problem come in several different forms. Let’s break these down into a few categories:

A soldier uses a battery-powered handheld device in the field. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army)

Alternative Energy Production to Recharge Batteries: Futuristic clothing that helps produce energy is one solution. Several companies are working on wearables that integrate communication, sensors and energy sources. Kinetic energy would create energy, the clothing would store it and then recharge devices as needed. While the concept sounds great, unfortunately the reality is that this solution is still off in the future.

Solar energy is currently being harvested in the battlefield. Solar blankets and panels have been integrated into platoon set ups, which can produce and store power for recharging. However, the limitation here is that soldiers need to stop and recharge —an almost impossible task during a mission. Current fielded solar technology proves good for backup, and the power management introduced with the technology allows soldiers to transfer power from partially depleted disposable batteries to rechargeable batteries and devices. This helps get the most out of the power supplies on hand. But solar technology doesn’t completely deliver the power and agility required.

Next-generation ISPDSs use intelligent power management to prioritize energy supply for devices on the personal area network (PAN) and the battery life of the rechargeable batteries.

Standardization: Dismounted soldier-carry devices often use different types of communications protocols (i.e. fast Ethernet, Gigabit Ethernet, USB 2.0, USB 3.0,serial), all with various connectors and, most troubling, all requiring different types of batteries—often adding up to 14 pounds of weight on an already-overburdened load. If suppliers standardized on connectivity, communications, and necessary batteries, the weight soldiers must carry could be mitigated.

These are great goals, to be sure, but we can’t rely on this in the near future. Between solutions that aren’t ready and solutions that don’t deliver, the question remains: how do we help ease a soldier’s load now?

Integrated Soldier Power and Data Systems (ISPDS): ISPDS is a technology that is available today to help lighten the load (both weight and power) and make power management a more controlled, agile routine for dismounted soldiers. An ISPDS enables simultaneous connectivity and control over data transmission and power management of multiple wearable devices. This technology makes sure that soldiers have unequaled situational awareness on the battlefield to make better decisions on-the-spot in combat and thereby increase mission efficacy.

Increased combat effectiveness requires vast amounts of information and high-speed data to be exchanged, in real-time, between soldiers on the battlefield and command centers. Today’s soldiers are now also a means of data collection and exchange, well-appointed with communication systems, advanced weapons, data storage, navigation and other intelligence. When soldiers are dismounted, these solutions necessitate smart networking with each other and then, back to command centers.

A soldier conducts a radio check on a piece of battery operated equipment. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army)

Versatile ISPDS hubs can be used to manage both down (from command) and upstream data (to command) as a personal area network (PAN) backbone for field-deployed operations. A multitude of connection options including USB, fast Ethernet, Gigabit Ethernet and serial ports on a single hub that fits in the palm of your hand, creates a powerful, flexible communications hub that can connect and exchange data between wearables.

With the use of USB and power over Ethernet (PoE), the same ports that can help devices share data can also help to power and/or recharge them. While wearable devices have their own battery, a centralized power source, usually a lithium-ion battery, is carried to recharge those devices. And, of course, these lithium-ion batteries must be either replaced as they lose charge or recharged by an external power source—the preferred scenario to keep both individual and platoon burdens lower. In this later scenario, the ISPDS must be able to manage both the charge to each wearable device and the recharging of the lithium batteries.

Here is where power management can get much more complex than data management since it is a newer challenge to technologists. Recharging devices that connect via USB have a standard for sharing a charging profile via the “power manager” within the hub. Using either Linux on a chip or a microcontroller, the hub can determine which power profile these connected downstream devices need and will take the power from the battery and charge the wearable as needed. These standards have been in place for years and the job is straightforward.

Unfortunately, not all rechargeable batteries are alike. Each battery was developed without a power communications standard and thus has a different charging profile. In order to know how to properly recharge each battery, the charging profile can be hardcoded into the ISPDS hub, or the ISPDS hub can scan it and make a decision on which charging profile to use. That said, since each vendor might have its own nuances to achieve optimal charge performance, you need to program the specific battery type and charge profile into the ISPDS. Until charging profiles are standardized across batteries (i.e. data communications standards), ISPDS must have the intelligence to read charging profiles of the rechargeable batteries and then charge them accordingly to maximize them for mission longevity.

Next-generation ISPDSs use intelligent power management to prioritize energy supply for devices on the personal area network (PAN) and the battery life of the rechargeable batteries. Integrating with mission software, soldiers can have the information via visual statistics to decide whether to continue to use a specific device or shut it down to conserve battery and prioritize other devices more critically needed to complete the mission. This intelligent battery management can be managed via smartphone, tablet or laptop.

Integrated data and power management and charging capabilities that lighten the soldier’s required load work in two ways:

  • First, by integrating data networking and power management into one lightweight device, the number of devices a soldier must carry is reduced.

  • Second, by powering multiple devices with a central conformal battery, the need for each individual system to have its own battery is eliminated. Central batteries tend to be smaller, more lightweight and have a vast improvement on battery life.

Integrated Soldier Power and Data Systems deliver an immediate solution to the “battery fatigue” soldiers are dealing with every day. Recent interviews with soldiers on the front-line discuss all sorts of devices handed to them to help improve the mission. The reality is that we need to empower soldiers and provide them with the tools needed to make the mission manageable, without adding excess weight. Integrating power systems and controlling weight burdens before handing soldiers yet another new device is not only mission critical, but it ensures that wearable technologies designed to help soldiers don’t hinder them on the battlefield.

This article was written by Ronen Isaac, General Manager, MilSource (El Segundo, CA). For more information, visit here .