Equipping Soldiers of the Future
July 4, 2014
The Polish Science Voice talks to Prof. Aleksander M. Nawrat, member of the board and development manager at the OBRUM Mechanical Instruments R&D Center in the southern city of Gliwice, a research-and-development facility that is part of Poland’s Polski Holding Obronny defense holding company.
The Polish government has assigned more than zl.130 billion for the modernization of the Polish armed forces. The program has already gotten under way and includes the purchase of new helicopters, ships and other equipment. Will OBRUM play a part in this program as a research-and-development facility?
The modernization of the Polish armed forces is an opportunity for the Polish arms industry and research-and-development facilities. We’ve been modernizing and creating military equipment for nearly 50 years. Nowadays, innovative technical solutions are standard for most armies. We have many great scientists and engineers who can meet the need for that kind of equipment in Poland. A perfect example is OBRUM’s direct fire support vehicle, our newest project. The vehicle weighs under 40 tons, which guarantees enhanced maneuverability and a higher top speed—in the region of 90 kph. Crew members inside will be protected by an overhead, remote-controlled weapon station, the component that is most often the subject of enemy attacks. Moreover, our vehicle will be equipped with a system for monitoring crew life parameters as well as the technical parameters of the tank itself. This ensures better vehicle management. The vehicle’s armor is characterized by high ballistic resistance thanks to an active defense system. It’s the first tank in the world that combines all these innovative features in one vehicle.
This will not be OBRUM’s first product that is unique. A year ago you developed the SK-1 Pluton training system. Why is that unique?
The SK-1 Pluton consists of two training simulators that are perfect copies of the Rosomak armored modular vehicle’s gun crew commander cabin and vehicle commander cabin. This allows us to carry out training for operating the vehicle. However, the SK-1 Pluton has been designed mainly to increase soldier tactical skills. The system consists of multiple monitors that allow soldiers to control actions on the battlefield. In addition, the SK-1 Pluton is not only for the people inside. Landing troops can also train tactics in front of monitors. This makes it possible to coordinate operations by not only platoons but also companies and larger divisions. Training can be carried out more frequently and it generates considerably lower costs compared with real firing ground operations.
What’s more, we make use of high-level architecture (HLA) and distributed interactive simulation (DIS) interfaces. This enables us to conduct same-time virtual-reality training for large groups of soldiers regardless of their location. By means of the SK-1 Pluton, we can carry out large international maneuvers in virtual reality.
We have to remember, however, that no simulator can replace training at exercise sites. It is simply necessary. Modern technology, however, allows us to significantly increase the frequency of training. One example is the iRys, our virtual firing ground simulator. Training takes place in a room where soldiers can improve their effectiveness. They can practice getting inside buildings and freeing hostages. Soldiers use special goggles that allow them to see each other as virtual characters. Additionally, they are equipped with replicas of firearms and sensors monitoring their vital functions. The iRys is also equipped with an electrical system that simulates the “getting shot” effect. Today soldiers inside firing ground simulators can only use voice commands. Our simulator allows them to communicate through gestures, to cooperate and to move in battle array. They can also terminate virtual targets. The whole system allows soldiers to undertake complete tactical training and create any mission scenario for the team or 20 independent participants.
The iRys can be used by both the army and other commercial users.
Does this mean that you are thinking of focusing on commercial applications?
Definitely not. Our main focus is the arms industry. We realize, however, that more and more of our products can be used by companies and institutions not necessarily connected with the military. Augmented reality is an example. Until now, augmented reality was used in marketing, where a client could change, for instance, the color of a car only by means of an application. We took that a step further. Our solution facilitates and improves maintenance of devices and vehicles and enables users to view electrical/gas installations. Augmented reality is technology that interactively connects the real world with elements generated digitally. All you need to do is point your camera towards an electric device to get to see the cables underneath its cover. Additionally, that technology allows the user to see a given object from different angles.
It greatly facilitates the work of companies and people dealing with maintenance and service.
A new tank, simulators, virtual reality. Is there anything else that OBRUM is working on?
Our projects are mainly focused on army demands. At the moment, we are working, among other things, on an unmanned land platform that weighs less than 800 kg. It can be used to clear an area of mines, evacuate wounded soldiers or check culverts or roadsides. OBRUM, as part of a large consortium, is also responsible for an Identification Friend-or-Foe (IFF) system, which is nowadays used only in air traffic. We assume that the first robots should be used by the army in about five years. The rest is classified.
The contemporary geopolitical situation in Europe encourages a growing number of countries to show an interest in advanced technology that can be used in military operations. This a great opportunity for research and development centers. How does OBRUM plan to take advantage of this opportunity?
Due to the situation in Ukraine, a perceivable threat has emerged for other European countries. This is not the only place in the world where international relations, which were good so far, have now become very tense and may turn into armed conflicts. Governments in many countries are aware of the seriousness of this situation and are trying to secure the safety of their citizens, hence interest in the military industry is substantially higher than a few years ago. Aside from countries pressing ahead with modernization programs, many others are trying to acquire up-to-date equipment. As a research and development center we excel in such projects.
Our PL-01 Concept light tank, unveiled at last year’s International Defense Industry Exhibition in Kielce [south-central Poland], is as a good example. We faced criticism over the design of the tank. As it turns out, it has gained the approval of the army and funding from the National Center for Research and Development (NCBiR) and is being carried out. This is what R&D centers like ours are all about. We have to outrun contemporary technology by thinking a few years ahead.
The current global situation stimulates interest in our products. Both foreign military companies and governments in different countries are eager to take part in symposiums and conferences dedicated to our market branch, where they can learn about the latest technological solutions. We have also noted a substantial increase in the interest of the public as well as growing approval for the government’s efforts related to the modernization and development of the Polish defense industry.
Modern technology gives the military a big advantage, but it also means high costs. Are you not concerned that OBRUM’s products will fail to find a market even though they meet all requirements?
Undoubtedly, innovative technologies are associated with high production costs. Not only the implementation of state-of-the art electronics, but also the most durable materials are a big expense for most countries. We should remember, however, that military equipment serves its purpose for several years. It is an investment for future decades that will increase the security of the state. Hence, so many governments are interested in innovative technologies for the defense industry and are able to secure money in their budgets for such purposes. Herein lies the paradox. Many countries around the world are increasing their combat capabilities and buying equipment that is worth billions of dollars, but are hoping to never have to use it.