Sensor Fusion & the future battlefield

The notion of Sensor Fusion‭ (‬SF‭) ‬has been around for a while‭. ‬Indeed‭, ‬the first moon landings used a basic Data Fusion Algorithm‭ (‬DFA‭) ‬applied to orientation sensors to ensure the astronauts landed in the right place‭ – ‬and‭, ‬indeed‭, ‬to ensure they found their way back‭. ‬Decades later‭, ‬major advances in computing and communications are allowing for tremendous new opportunities‭.‬

The advent of the Internet of Things‭ (‬IoT‭) ‬and the break-out of autonomous vehicle technology in civil and military contexts both add tremendous new significance to SF technology‭. ‬It is also predicted that the market for such technology is predicted to top‭ $‬7‭ ‬billion in the US alone over the next three years‭. ‬

The article will shed the light on the applications of the sensor fusion‭, ‬both civilian and military‭, ‬and the utility of this new technology‭, ‬and how it is going to change the future battlefields‭. ‬

Applications of Sensor Fusion‭;‬

One of the key breakthroughs is in the shape of an embedded SF microcontroller unit‭ (‬MCU‭) ‬called a‭ ‬“sensor hub”‭, ‬which runs an in-built SF algorithm‭, ‬thus greatly reducing the computing load of previously software-based approaches from the‭ ‬CPU‭. ‬This in turn increases speed‭, ‬performance‭, ‬and the complexity of possible SF tasks‭. ‬The development of AI technology also‭ ‬allows for more intelligent and capable interpretation of multiple data sources‭, ‬in such areas as smoothing out inaccurate or rogue sensor data that could affect overall judgements or performance of machinery‭. ‬

Particularly in civilian contexts‭, ‬the imminent roll-out of 5G infrastructure not only allows for greatly enhanced data-rates‭, ‬but also for more sophisticated and data-hungry applications that would previously have been too slow‭, ‬power-hungry‭, ‬or requiring‭ ‬too much computational power‭. ‬5G also utilises beamforming technology‭, ‬which can offer geolocational possibilities in mitigation of traditional satellite mechanisms‭, ‬by using algorithmic analysis of signal orientation data‭: ‬a modern version of wartime radio direction-finding technology‭. ‬This could be particularly useful in environments where satellite positioning struggles‭, ‬such as in tunnels or amongst tall buildings‭. ‬This‭, ‬in turn‭, ‬allows for greater reliability of autonomous vehicles in a range of different environments‭, ‬and for generally more persistent network connectivity‭. ‬

Android and Apple smartphones are already incorporating the technology into their latest models‭, ‬allowing for greater integration with wearable and other devices while reducing the drain on battery power‭. ‬The automotive industry is another obvious area of‭ ‬application‭, ‬where SF can improve safety feature responses such as the deployment of collision-avoidance systems‭, ‬bringing the advent of viable autonomous cars onto public roads much nearer‭.‬

In health‭, ‬the deployment of Wide Body Area Sensor Networks‭ (‬WBASNs‭) ‬utilising multiple micro-sensors allow for much more data to be collected on the functions of the body‭, ‬enabling better analysis and diagnosis of health conditions‭, ‬and for dynamic monitoring of organ functions‭. ‬

There are challenges posed by SF‭. ‬Ensuring reliability in the face of rogue inputs from a particular sensor will be critical‭, ‬especially in such areas as collision-avoidance systems for autonomous vehicles‭. ‬The incorporation of a myriad of personal and private IoT devices into over-arching SF systems also raises concerns about privacy‭. ‬At the same time‭, ‬intelligent use of AI and encryption could allow for more security in communications if deployed effectively‭. ‬

In the battlefield context‭, ‬the role of speedy and accurate data within the essential logic of C4ISR‭ (‬command‭, ‬control‭, ‬communications‭, ‬computers‭, ‬intelligence‭, ‬surveillance and reconnaissance‭) ‬has always been critical to tactical advantage‭. ‬With the advent of Smart Sensor Web‭ (‬SSW‭) ‬and SF technology‭, ‬a range of new opportunities and benefits are presenting themselves‭. ‬


As the fifth-century Chinese military strategist‭, ‬Sun Tzu‭, ‬reputedly said‭, ‬foreknowledge allows a wise general to conquer his enemies‭. ‬By deploying multiple sensors on military vehicles and equipment‭, ‬whether in the domains of land‭, ‬air‭, ‬or sea‭; ‬and deploying AI-enabled signal processing and analysis on the received data‭, ‬the objective of obtaining a greatly enhanced monitoring and‭ ‬reconnaissance capability across large and multiple environments is achievable‭. ‬This‭, ‬in turn‭, ‬can allow for more efficient and‭ ‬targeted responses with greater degrees of accuracy to mitigate or neutralise threats‭. ‬It is probably no coincidence that the US Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command recently renamed itself the Naval Information Warfare Systems Command‭, ‬to emphasise the significance of this piece of the jigsaw‭. ‬

wide benefits of Sensor Fusion

SSWs and their availability to the warfighter in the battlefield allow for greater and more dynamic situational awareness‭. ‬Data‭ ‬feeds can include high-resolution digital maps including 3-D terrain modelling‭; ‬multi-spectral imagery from an array of sensors‭ ‬on manned or unmanned vehicles in different environments‭; ‬and live feeds into headquarters intelligence and information databases‭. ‬In the air‭, ‬as with 5G beamforming‭, ‬drones can use SF to mitigate for loss of signal or failures in GPS sensors‭, ‬by utilising‭ ‬other data such as light detection‭ (‬LIDAR‭) ‬or radar‭. ‬This will deliver better and more persistently accurate geolocational data‭, ‬allowing for the more effective finding and targeting of hostile assets‭. ‬

As with any major development in military technology‭, ‬the early-adopters with the biggest budgets will enjoy the greatest battlefield advantages‭. ‬Think back to the 1991‭ ‬engagement in the Gulf against Iraq‭, ‬and the way in which sophisticated use of thermal‭ ‬imaging allowing the US air-force to‭ ‬“own the air”‭ ‬and enjoy complete dominance in night-time operations‭. ‬At the same time‭, ‬the enormous initial costs of such systems have caused‭ ‬problems for even the biggest spenders in the face of declining defence budgets‭. ‬The latest developments in computing and communications technology‭, ‬and the massively enhanced opportunities to use cutting-edge commercial off-the-shelf‭ (‬COTs‭) ‬capabilities‭,‬‭ ‬however‭, ‬allow militaries to deploy a much greater array of sensors to the battlefield‭, ‬and to do more at lower cost with the collected data‭. ‬

It is also the case that the need for more targeted and efficient battlefield operations will be crucial in the face of declining military numbers‭. ‬The UK’s Ministry of Defence recently announced‭, ‬for example‭, ‬that it is cutting its army by a further 10,000‭ ‬troops‭. ‬A combination of‭ ‬SSW and autonomous technology will allow for doing much more‭, ‬with fewer personnel‭. ‬This will undoubtedly be very attractive to‭ ‬military planners and strategists‭. ‬It also delivers new opportunities for the defence industries of advanced economies to be very much at the forefront of this area of high-tech development‭: ‬a fact made explicit in recent defence and security reviews in the UK and elsewhere‭. ‬

How will SF technology shape the future battlespace‭? ‬

The first piece of the jigsaw is the proliferation of sensors‭. ‬In both civilian and military environments‭, ‬sensors will increasingly be ubiquitous‭. ‬The new technologies that we will all be using‭, ‬whether in health‭, ‬transport or security‭, ‬require constant and accurate data availability to drive their operations‭. ‬Major advances have been made to the miniaturisation and performance of‭ ‬sensors in recent years‭, ‬allowing for cheaper and more effective sensors which use much less power than their earlier iterations‭. ‬

Forward Looking InfraRed‭ (‬FLIR‭) ‬systems are a fine example of the progress of sensors in the thermal imaging domain‭. ‬Such devices now weigh as little as 70‭ ‬grams‭; ‬use tiny amounts of power to operate and can be bought off-the-shelf for a few hundred dollars‭. ‬The future battlespace could be‭ ‬“seeded”‭ ‬with multiple sensors of this type‭, ‬delivered via air-drops‭, ‬small robotic devices or attached to drones or other airborne platforms‭, ‬allowing for massively enhanced situational awareness in short order‭. ‬Where deployments are close to inhabited areas‭, ‬the‭ ‬increasingly manifold array of private and commercial sensors‭, ‬such as CCTV cameras and other broadcasting devices connected to‭ ‬the internet‭, ‬can be co-opted into an over-arching SSW delivering dynamic local situational intelligence‭. ‬

Cloud connectivity is a key second component of the picture‭. ‬In urban zones‭, ‬new 5G networks will offer ready-made communication‭ ‬channels that can carry much higher volumes of data at faster and more efficient rates than existing networks‭. ‬These networks connect to the internet via an increasingly multiple array of private‭, ‬commercial and deployed devices and sensors‭. ‬Where locations are more remote and lacking in communications infrastructure‭, ‬beamforming technology is lighting the way in delivering much higher data-rates for microwave and other radio-relay platforms‭. ‬This allows for targeting signals more specifically along particular channels‭, ‬improving the power efficiency of systems and the reliability of data transmissions‭, ‬even in hostile environmental conditions‭. ‬

The final critical component of the picture is constituted by advances in computational capability and the development of viable‭ ‬AI technology‭. ‬In many ways‭, ‬computing is on the threshold of its next major revolution‭, ‬whereby systems will be able to carry‭ ‬out exponentially greater and more complex calculations than had previously been thought possible with standard microchip technology‭. ‬The big story in computing will be the development of quantum systems‭, ‬which are still a little way over the horizon in terms of viability and affordability‭. ‬In the meantime‭, ‬the development of embedded MCUs with hard-wired AI algorithms have shown that significant advances can be made in reducing the overall load of CPUs‭, ‬and thus improving the complexity and dynamism of data analysis‭, ‬at lower levels of power and cost‭. ‬Cloud technology has also allowed for data-hungry computing tasks to be brought‭ ‬“closer to the battlefront”‭. ‬Once certain thresholds of this nature are demonstrably passed‭, ‬the deployment of previously hypothetical approaches and techniques becomes distinctly possible‭. ‬

The future warfighter in advanced militaries will therefore be able to connect with enormously improved and increased situational awareness across all environments‭, ‬improving both defensive and offensive intelligence capabilities‭. ‬The reliability‭, ‬speed‭, ‬and complexity of data will all be improved‭. ‬Problem mitigation such as compensating for rogue or inaccurate data will increasingly be enabled by AI modelling‭. ‬This will be hugely beneficial not only in such areas as eliminating the risk of‭ ‬“friendly fire”‭ ‬incidents‭ (‬a significant problem in the 1991‭ ‬Gulf war‭, ‬for example‭), ‬but also for generally enhancing situational awareness leading to more targeted and efficient operations‭. ‬

There are‭, ‬of course‭, ‬significant ethical questions surrounding these developments‭. ‬With SF technology‭, ‬the increasing possibility of an‭ ‬“all seeing eye”‭ ‬that cannot be avoided in any circumstance poses difficult questions for the values of liberal democratic military approaches to world order‭. ‬The integration of private and civil SSWs into military operations begs immediate questions about the human right‭ ‬to privacy‭, ‬as we all move into an IoT world‭. ‬And‭, ‬as with all new technologies‭, ‬a potentially problematic asymmetry is delivered‭, ‬whereby the weak and under-resourced find it increasingly difficult to confront the strong‭. ‬At the same time‭, ‬the major military powers will inevitably be enticed by the opportunities for greater efficiency and effectiveness offered by SF technology‭, ‬and this will surely make it an unstoppable development‭. ‬

Sources and references

Steve Orrin‭ (‬2019‭, ‬November 12‭). ‬“See something‭, ‬do something‭: ‬Sensors in battlefield dominance”‭. ‬DefenseNews‭. ‬See something‭, ‬do something‭: ‬Sensors in battlefield dominance‭ — ‬Defense Systems

Jeffrey L‭. ‬Paul‭ (‬2000‭). ‬“Smart Sensor Web‭: ‬Web-Based Exploitation of Sensor Fusion for Visualization of the Tactical Battlefield”‭. ‬IEEE Aerospace and Electronic Systems Magazine‭, ‬23‭, ‬vol.1

Martin Keenan‭ (‬2019‭, ‬February 20‭). ‬“The Challenge and the Opportunity of Sensor Fusion‭: ‬A Real Gamechanger”‭. ‬5G Technology World‭. ‬The Challenge and the Opportunity of Sensor Fusion‭, ‬a Real Gamechanger‭ – ‬5G Technology World

‮»‬‭ ‬By‭: ‬Prof‭. ‬Julian Richards
‭(‬Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies‭ (‬BUCSIS‭), ‬University of Buckingham‭, ‬UK‭)‬

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