A military program named for and inspired by the superhero Batman is bringing together advanced technologies to equip U.S. Special Forces soldiers for the 21st century.
Started by the Air Force in 2004, BATMAN — short for Battlefield Air Targeting Man-Aided kNowledge — aims to modernize the gear that commandos take with them on covert missions.
"In the earliest stages when we were coming up with a name for the program, we were perceived as having a lot of gadgets," said Reggie Daniels, BATMAN program engineer at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. "[Batman's] devices allow him to have an advantage. That is what we're trying to do."
Fittingly, the motto of the program is "lighter, smarter, deadlier."
Regarding the first objective, elite Air Force soldiers often must lug up to 160 pounds (73 kilograms) of equipment during a mission, Daniels said.
This equipment includes communications gear, helmet displays, a headset and a computer, plus a host of batteries to keep all these electronics juiced in the field.
Special ops missions include setting up runways and landing zones as well as retrieving injured people from aircraft down behind enemy lines. "They have a very dangerous job," said Daniels.
Yet in many cases, Special Forces' outdated gear has overly burdened them, impeded their time-critical decision-making, or simply not been up to the task at hand, he added.
Before recent battlefield incidents spurred reform, Special Forces "were basically using paper and pencil and calculating [their positions in the field] and they had to hobble equipment together that wasn't supposed to be together," said Daniels.
In one particular disaster in Afghanistan, an improperly reinitialized piece of equipment essentially called in an airstrike on the Special Forces' position, killing a number of troops, said Daniels, though he demurred on the details.
The Department of Defense wanted to ensure that this sort of incident would never happen again, and thus BATMAN was born.
To the Batcave
The military version of Bruce Wayne's Batcave is a laboratory at Wright Patterson Air Force Base. This is where Daniels and his colleagues devise, test and integrate technologies to boost Special Forces' effectiveness.
Although there is no "Batsuit" per se, the BATMAN program does center around what Daniels called the "human chassis," or the idea of the body as a scaffold for all of a mission's appropriate gear.
For example, components such as communications antennas have been placed closer to the torso rather than at distances that can tax a soldier's balance, Daniels said.
A key BATMAN achievement has been reducing the weight of carried batteries by 25 percent. New fuel cells powered by methanol actually get lighter as the methanol is consumed, Daniels said, so instead of toting drained batteries, a soldier's load decreases over time.
BATMAN has additionally pioneered the use of a small, chest-mounted computer to provide warriors with real-time logistical and tactical information. Speech recognition, or telling one's equipment what to do – which is arguably more Inspector Gadget than Batman — is also in the works.
Other technologies brought to bear in the BATMAN initiative include a device that soldiers throw over low-voltage, overhead power lines to draw electricity.
"The time spent by [Special Forces] in the field is limited by how long their batteries last," said Dave Coates, lead test engineer at Ohio-based Defense Research Associates (DRA). "When those batteries die, they've got to come back in."
The DRA-developed device, the Remote Auxiliary Power System — though better known as the Bat Hook – was similarly inspired by the Dark Knight.
A Special Forces soldier working with DRA said, "'You know what would be really cool?'" recalled Coates. "'Something like what Batman has on his belt that he can take out and wing it up to a power line and get power.'"
The black, stereo remote-size Bat Hook has a notch that catches onto a power line and then a tiny razor cuts into the wire's insulation. The Bat Hook slurps down energy into its cable's housing, where the alternating current is converted into the direct current fed into electronics. Coates said he weighted the device such that it easily pops off a wire as well once charging is done.
Another DRA technology, a so-called KeCo switch, allows soldiers to manually toggle between "line of sight" and satellite-enabled communications on their tactical radios. Pre-KeCo, soldiers had to physically swap out an antenna when switching from talking to nearby compatriots over to contacting command headquarters.
Building a better Batman
Some BATMAN technologies have already debuted while others continue making progress as prototypes, Daniels said.
Down the road, he looks forward to eliminating many of the wires that link elements of BATMAN technology, such as the ones that run from the wearable computer to the helmet display and to an operator's rucksack.
A San Diego-based company called Torrey Pines Logic is developing a non-radio frequency, light-based mode of wireless communication that could make these snag-hazard wires disappear.
The deployed technology will be both "eye-safe" and compatible with the low-light levels required of equipment used clandestinely at night, Daniels said.
Daniels envisions a time when in the most hostile and remote areas, Special Forces troops will feel as connected and informed as anyone using a smartphone or a computer does in a non-warzone.
Sometimes the problems facing Special Forces are as simple as "knowing where you are in the world accurately and knowing where the good guys are at and the bad guys are at," Daniels said.