The Army wants smarter tech gear. U. of I. is leading the charge.

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Amazon Echo, Google Home and other Internet of Things devices have given tech-savvy homeowners the ability to automate tasks with the touch of a button or wave of a hand.

Now, as part of a new $25 million initiative funded by the Army Research Lab, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign will lead an initiative with six schools and a research center to bring similar capabilities to the battlefield.

“The goal of this program is the development of new intellectual foundations and new knowledge,” said Tarek Abdelzaher, a computer science professor who’s heading the initiative for U. of I. “How do we empower the U.S. Army to have a higher competitive advantage in a world where adversaries are becoming increasingly technologically sophisticated?”

U. of I. announced its role in the potentially decade-long initiative last week. The school will keep $6 million of the funding, with the rest going to partners on the project.

Future research carried out at the university won’t be for inventing a commando version of Echo, Abdelzaher said. Instead of developing hardware, researchers will concentrate on taking the different physical devices already being used in the battlefield and figuring out ways to better connect them as parts of one seamless network that “intelligently” works to keeps soldiers out of harm’s way, he said.

“Sensors, cameras, weapons, vehicles, collected data and algorithms are all over the place — in armor, in soldiers’ wearables, on the ground and in the sky,” he said. “We want to configure them, to bring them together to create one of millions of possible tools that can best accomplish the right mission.”

“We don’t want to micromanage the machines and things doing the work,” Abdelzaher said. “I want to tell (the machines) my intent, and then I want them to have the sort of intelligence, autonomy and initiative to figure out how to meet my intent.”

Peter Singer, a senior fellow at technology think tank New America who’s not involved in the project, said the further integration of Internet of Things technology into the battlefield offers advantages. For example, technology that better predicts enemy movements could lead to a reduction in casualties, Singer said. Likewise, more sophisticated data tracking on supply runs could lead to efficiencies and cost savings, he said.

“Using (Internet of Things technology) to make decisions quicker might save money or lives,” Singer said. “While they’re framing it as the battlefield, it’s as much of a gain for the military in all sorts of other efficiencies in how they do business. When you’re talking about the U.S. military, you’re talking about this major organization.”

But there are concerns when military devices function as part of one giant network, he said.

As more devices are networked, the bigger the target that network becomes for a possible cyberattack, Singer said. Additionally, when physical devices are linked to an electronic system, hacks don’t just steal information — they do real-world damage. For proof, he said, look no further than the malicious Stuxnet worm used to damage Iran’s nuclear program.

The U. of I.-led initiative is officially known as the Alliance for IoBT Research on Evolving Intelligent Goal-driven Networks, or IoBT REIGN. The team also includes Carnegie Mellon University; the University of California, Berkeley; the University of California, Los Angeles; the University of Massachusetts, Amherst; and the University of Southern California. SRI International, an independent research center headquartered in California, has also signed on to the initiative.

The $25 million from the Army Research Lab covers five years of research. If the initiative shows progress, it can be extended for another five years with more funding, estimated at another $32 million, Abdelzaher said.

Robert Holly is a freelance writer.

Twitter @robertwadeholly

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