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Boeing Builds Touch Screen Sand Table Replacement

by Mike Hoffman on July 25, 2012

The Army can’t get enough touch screens. Walk through the Network Integration Evaluations at White Sands Missile Range, N.M. They populate the headquarters posts and tactical operations center throughout the desert. The day of the traditional sand table might be coming to a close.

One of the latest models is Boeing’s Virtual Mission Board which the Army is using to train. Dave Irwin, Boeing’s director for Ground Forces Training, said he could see it being used in combat as well.

The Virtual Mission Board is less a board as much as it’s a software program that soldiers or other services could install into whichever PC they choose. Boeing is still working with the software to make it adaptable to iPads and other tablets.

Before and after exercises, soldiers and troop commanders can see exactly where their units are located and how a potential exercise will play out. They can see a 3-D lay out of buildings and virtual battlefields. With a touch of the finger they can move units much like they did on a sand table. Commanders can even map fires and simulate entire exercise progressions, Irwin said.

Soldiers at Fort Sill, Okla., have already started training with the Virtual Mission Board. The Army has bought two boards for Fort Sill, one for Ft. Bragg, N.C., and one for Fort Lee, Va.. The Army is in the process of buying another one for Fort Lee, two for Fort Eustis, Va., one for Fort Rucker, Ala., five for Fort McCoy, Wisc., and one for the Pennsylvania National Guard. The Marine Corps has shown interest, but has yet to buy one, Irwin said.

For the same reason the Virtual Mission Board works as a training tool, Irwin can see Army units using it in deployed locations. Rather than using paper maps or Power Point slides before missions, a commander could outline an upcoming mission on the Virtual Mission Board.

The Army first started using the Virtual Mission Board in 2010. The potential use in combat is a new development.

At the most recent NIE this Spring, the Army tested the Command Tactical Vision touch screen mapping program built by Ringtail, a small company based in Austin, Texas. Soldiers and commanders raved about how easy it was to visualize the battlefield using the large touch screen map and the manner it condensed information that typically required four to five screens at a TOC.

Army and SOCOM leaders have already provided feedback on how Boeing could improve the board. Commanders asked Boeing to include a tool that measures a specific plot of land simply by tracing it with your finger. Boeing agreed and has made the adjustment.

“We’re always looking to make it better,” Irwin said.

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{ 47 comments… read them below or add one }

blight_ July 25, 2012 at 11:10 am

Finally processing power and vectorised satmap data (for 3D) is available in sufficient quantities to replace sand tables.

Yellow box the ceiling for fixed wing aircraft and blue box for helicopters? Wonder what's going on in the image.

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majr0d July 25, 2012 at 3:45 pm

Funny!

Now if it will just fit in a soldier's rucksack..

Sufficient quantities aren't about to replace sand tables.

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blight_ July 25, 2012 at 4:50 pm

If they can figure out how to hack up a haptic sensor to simulate tactile control using a projector, then one just carries the projector unit instead of a giant tablet.

Time will tell, as it usually does.

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majr0d July 25, 2012 at 11:51 pm

We're carrying 60lbs of body armor now. Once you toss in weapons, ammo, water and batteries it's pushing a 100 and you want to add a projector?

It's like throwing a drowning man an anvil.

Agree, time will tell. Let the tech mature before you inflict it on the grunt… PLEASE!!!

Former Grunt

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blight_ July 26, 2012 at 5:24 pm

Amusingly, you skipped food.

The armies of yesteryear that relied on massive supply trains would be shocked at our lack of infantry mobility. Then again, the Romans who had to carry everything might be sympathetic.

Lighter body armor is not coming anytime soon, sadly enough…

elmondohummus July 25, 2012 at 11:30 am

Now this is a terrific application of technology. I imagine much more can be done, and faster, with this sort of thing than with a sand table.

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USSHelm July 25, 2012 at 12:21 pm

Are those EMP hardened? If not, that could be a problem in South Korea, or just about anywhere a nuke is detonated.

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blight_ July 25, 2012 at 12:37 pm

After the nuke, going back to the sand table is going to be the least of your worries. You'll be seizing civilian stockpiles of I-131 and high-filtration masks to avoid inhalation of larger radioactive particles. You'll also need body bags to bury the half of your army that will die in the first seventy-two hours if they are close enough to ground zero to not be burned into the ground as shadows, but close enough for lethal doses of radiation.

Our military medical infrastructure seems geared more towards high-care towards a low number of casualties with the ability to send critical patients back to Germany for care. Is the medical system ready for the day hundreds of simultaneous casualties come through the door?

Edit: HEPA filters were originally developed as part of the Manhattan Project, to contain radioactive contaminants..

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ben July 26, 2012 at 2:50 pm

Fun fact… the nuke flash only vaporizes the first few millimeters of most surfaces, and even the 50m steel ball target at the trinity test only had a few cm ablated…

The "burned to shadows" effect was actually from the flash cleaning the grime off the concrete everywhere except for the shadows leaving dark patches.

this effect was also visible on a smaller scale in people exposed to the flash. the different pigments in clothing created differential burning of the underlying skin.

The stereotypical burned out wasteland pictures of hiroshima and nagisaki were taken after the wreckage had been incinerated by secondary fires started by stoves buried in the rubble.
The initial aftermath would have looked a lot more like tornado damage

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blight_ July 26, 2012 at 5:23 pm

Still need to deal with radiation poisoning, evacuating wounded/dying troops from the front line and replacing them. The status of your fancy touch-screen sand table will be second to immediate consequences of a nuclear weapon.

Our nuclear testing on ships post-WW2 did indeed suggest that nuking metal objects will not annihilate them, but they'll definitely be hopelessly contaminated.

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coolhand77 July 25, 2012 at 1:04 pm

one word: Triage
It won't be pretty.

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blight_ July 25, 2012 at 1:23 pm

Indeed. Nuke proof just means gold-plated.

Edit: There *are* things that need nuke proofing: airborne command centers and the like. What would be the point of a deadman's switch that could be defeated by killing the operator?

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majr0d July 25, 2012 at 4:01 pm

“The day of the traditional sand table might be coming to a close.”

Guarantee the writer was never a grunt. How do you fit one of those in a rucksack let alone a Bradley or tank? Sure, probably a great tool at battalion or above but considering a battalion order generates at an absolute MINIMUM four company op orders, twelve platoon op orders and 48 squad order, each needing a sand table.

Writers just can't help themselves sometimes :)

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Thunder350 July 25, 2012 at 8:17 pm

3rd paragraph…

"Boeing is still working with the software to make it adaptable to iPads and other tablets."

So how do you fit something like this in a rucksack? Order one online, or if you still go to the store for some reason, go to your local electronics dealer and pick a tablet of your choosing!

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majr0d July 25, 2012 at 11:41 pm

Not buying it. The FEWEST folks at a Co or Plt order are six folks (mine typically had ten CO, XO, 3xPLs & their RTO, FO, 1SGT), a squad has nine people. Enjoying a movie on a tablet with six people is pretty ridiculous but acceptable when there are no other options. It's a akin to everyone solving a crossword puzzle at the same time. The sand table isn't "going away".

Might behoove listening to someone that has walked in those boots for a couple of decades?

blight – You are ABSOLUTELY right. The contractors will quickly be selling the idea.

BTW, NETT Warrior basis of issue (BOI) plan wants to issue a tablet to dismounted combat arms platoon leaders and above in addition to the android based phone. It does facilitate planning and reporting from what I've been able to gather (more feeedback from the field is needed, a BDE just deployed with it). It's not going to replace the sand table but may facilitate one on one brief backs during the orders process of troop leading procedures.

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blight_ July 25, 2012 at 4:50 pm

Shhh! The contractors are already salivating at the thought.

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Speedy July 25, 2012 at 9:10 pm

Umm.. when was the last time you saw a sand table in a tank??

As a wargamer, I always hated sand tables anyway. the sand scartched the paint off my miniatures. A nice green table cloth, and good looking terrain is much nicer anyway.

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Chewy 0311 July 26, 2012 at 12:19 am

Cool toy! You can't make it Grunt Proof. If it can be broken, it will be broken by a grunt. Besides, the grunts have more than enough kit to carry, that includes Spec Ops units too.

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Thunder350 July 26, 2012 at 5:06 pm

Tablets weigh less then a pound.

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blight_ July 26, 2012 at 5:20 pm

Perhaps he meant in terms of line items. Maybe a smaller smartphone-sized object will suffice, especially if it comes with a projector.

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MGC July 26, 2012 at 1:23 am

Grunts humping what, that big screen is battalion HQ kit just add it to the 100 tons of crap they already haul in their gas guzzlers. When was the last time you saw a grunt lug a 120mm mortar.

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Riceball July 26, 2012 at 1:08 pm

I agree, I like the idea of it but it does really belong at the BN level and should stay in the BN HQ and not out there with the grunts in the field.

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Thunder350 July 26, 2012 at 5:07 pm

As the article states, the grunts would have tablets, and tablets are extremely thin and light! (And always getting thinner and lighter too!)

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majr0d July 27, 2012 at 12:13 pm

A tablet isn't adequate to do a sandtable for CO, PLT or Squad orders. Check my earlier post about the numbers involved in an order at those levels. You can't gather 6 – 10 people around a tablet and see the detail required. If so we would have just used paper maps for the last 80 years.

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bobbymike July 26, 2012 at 11:18 pm

The future of warfare one step away. Imagine a single commander with this technology, the area had a few UGV's and UAV's.

Now a UGV spots some Talibs laser designates them and then the commander simple touches the screen where the UAV is, touches the screen where the enemy is and a Hellfire or JDAM is on its way.

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blight_ July 27, 2012 at 8:03 am

Oh jesus, like it would be so hard to tell whoever has eyes on target to fire at will.

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majr0d July 27, 2012 at 2:01 pm

Funny! I saw exactly this same phenomena when working on FCS.

The questions that stumped the eggheads were; who's controlling the UGVs? Does he come out of the Infantry squad or do we increase the size of the force? Who's providing security for the operator while he operating the UGV?

When running this in simulation we saw the operator get left behind because he wasn't aware of his immediate situation or the enemy would kill him. We have to be constantly wary of those so enthralled by technology it replaces common sense.

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bobbymike July 27, 2012 at 10:34 pm

I don't think you understand. There are no eyes on target unless you mean mechanical eyes and the only man would be the commander in this scenario. The U means unattended or unmanned there is no man on the scene that why it is clean kill. So no soldiers at risk at yet you still have a man in the loop.

Right now I can sit on the beach in the south of France and see who is ringing my doorbell at home on my Ipad, I can turn lights on and off, etc. It would be one small step to have a remote weapons station kill them if they happened to be a burglar.

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A.g. July 28, 2012 at 5:25 am

Until you've got electricity.

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Private July 27, 2012 at 1:15 pm

Maybe if they could do their planning, orders, and rehearsals at the FOB they wouldn't have to carry the big screen TV around.

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majr0d July 27, 2012 at 2:02 pm

Unfortunately it's the follow on orders that can't be given at the FOB that become a problem.

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majr0d July 26, 2012 at 7:31 pm

I cut food because that's the first thing that went vs ammo, water & batteries. I went without many times and in Ranger school one meal a day was the standard, two for winter courses.

Blogs like this score high on info and high tech and shortchange the reality especially of close combat. I wasn't trying to be amusing. I was sharing hard learned and painful experience.

Familiar with the Romans. I've always been a fan. Besides my personal study and undergrad/grad courses, I was honored with the Order of St. Maurice (Roman Centurion) upon retiring. The Romans would be surprised on how the life for the frontline grunt hasn't changed as much as the other specialties. Good stuff!

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majr0d July 27, 2012 at 4:34 pm

You aren't getting it. It's not a question of the screen's fidelity, it's being able to see it from 3'+ away. Try reading an article from your tablet from 3' away. Possible but you'll find you have to scroll A LOT more. One of the most important reasons you use a sandtable during the orders issuing process is so that everyone can see the same thing at the same time and how they fit in the big picture. Crowding almost a dozen heads around a tablet isn't practical.

Maybe you aren't a grunt and had to give or receive an order in the field but maybe played football. Imagine how difficult it would be to simultaneously teach all 11 players of a football team a new play using a 5"x11" tablet. That doesn't even address the complexity of an operation spread over miles and varied terrain with different "plays/formations" along the route.

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Thunder350 July 27, 2012 at 4:54 pm

Who said the tablet has to be 5×11? There are bigger ones available which are made mostly for professional purposes which the military can adapt to their needs.

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majr0d July 27, 2012 at 6:06 pm

Thunder – Are you reading this thread? I've been patiently explaining the challenges and you keep wishing them away. How big do YOU think is adequate? Sure let's get back to MGC's original post and carry a big screen TV.

Technology solves every problem. We'll have a robot carry it!

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majr0d July 27, 2012 at 7:19 pm

My last assignment was the battle lab at Ft.Benning and maintain contacts with my friends that still work there now named the Manuever Battle Lab. I also served 20 years as an Infantry officer.

I'm not an enemy to technology. Applaud the basis of issue of a tablet per platoon leader and above with Nett Warrior.

I'm not so much last generation as experience talking. I've given hundreds of orders from pencil and paper all the way to the latest Army Battle Command systems. The sand table has some specific functions and requirements. At Co and below tablets aren't the answer FOR SAND TABLES unless you keep your order to less than six (we tried during the numerous AEWE spirals at Benning). So as you toss condescending "last generation" comments, how about your share where you got your CIB or your commission to demonstrate your knowledge of the orders process and what's needed at Co and below?

I just balance the snake oil that the salesmen are sometimes selling against the requirement based on a couple of years of walking the walk. Salesmen sometimes don't remember who they are talking to.

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tmb2 July 29, 2012 at 12:40 am

Thunder, basic rule of thumb with COTS equipment for the military: take whatever the volume and weight of the device is on the shelf at the Apple store and increase it by 50% to make it grunt-proof. My coworker's daughter broke his Kindle screen by dropping it from a couple feet. Imagine a tablet in a soldier's ruck bouncing around on a patrol or in the back of a vehicle. Not saying they can't be used, but its not so cut and dry when you only think of them in their commercial form as is.

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Thunder350 July 28, 2012 at 6:19 pm

A lot of the unmanned vehicles being used today for the past few years in the middle east are being controlled from the USA… Others are being controlled from a military base in the theater. (Ex. Pakistan before we got kicked out).

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majr0d July 28, 2012 at 6:39 pm

The weak point is UGVs.

Name one UGV that can be controlled in theatre from the States? Heck, name one that can be controlled at a range greater than a kilometer (include the UGV's weight and range). Then ask how the UGV got there.

Technology is great. It's better when It's mature enough for the battlefield. There are reasons SWORDS was pulled from the battlefield in Iraq and why it never fired a shot in "anger".

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blight_ July 28, 2012 at 9:22 pm

Someone will argue the rhetorical "then have a field controller, like the WW2 Goliath". Which is where my whole "eyes on target, fire on the target" comment comes from.

At the moment, UGV's don't carry much beyond small arms. And using a UGV as a laser designator for a UAV is a little nutty. What's nuttier is using a UGV with a local controller to lase for a UAV operated by a commander using a tablet.

Or the UGV is teleoperated by the commander who has to maintain full SA for the UGV and UAV using a magical tablet? Or we bundle in a first-person control mode and attach it to the battlemap mode.

Stick in more lines to the code…

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blight_ July 28, 2012 at 9:24 pm

The other question is how often do "sand tables" get used practically? I always thought to be effective they need to be built bespoke to match the terrain. In which case, using a 2D map is certainly faster than building a map.

If you're planning the Son Tay prison raid months in advance, the time advantage to using a sand table vs a digital map is kind of moot.

Might it be more appropriate to say they are augmenting topo maps?

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majr0d July 29, 2012 at 12:14 am

Yes, there are those that will continue to insert technology to fix a problem that doesn't exist.

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majr0d July 29, 2012 at 12:31 am

Sand tables are pretty common. The KEY advantage to sand tables is you can gather a greater number of leaders and even the troops around it to explain the op and how everyone is integrated. They also serve as the simplest rehearsal tool. Rule of thumb is if you have time to do rehearsals, you do a sand table. They don't have to be a 3d representation (you can even use yarn for elevation lines).

FYI, a technique leaders use is to task someone to build the sand table while they are working on the order. Pase lines, unit markers etc. can be added later before the order is given.

Maps are great but many times but you can't get enough heads in the limited space to make it an adequate sand table.

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Thunder350 July 29, 2012 at 8:58 am

Heard of Gorilla glass?

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Thunder350 July 29, 2012 at 9:06 am

And then there are those who are behind times and would rather get left behind then to stay ahead of our adversaries. Who also continue to believe there are limitations to such technology even tho it's used everyday by both enthusiast consumers and in professional businesses around the world. The proof is all around us.

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blight_ July 29, 2012 at 1:12 pm

3M has some pretty epic security glass, but I don't know if it can be repurposed for a capacitance screen.

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tmb2 July 29, 2012 at 2:57 pm

Sure have. That takes care of the screen, but not the rest of the case. Compare your ipad to a panasonic toughbook (which the DoD probably uses half a million of them) for comparison.

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