Soldiers with the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, New York will begin assessing the newest version of the Army’s do-it-all heads-up display device on Aug. 18.
For a week, the soldiers will take the Integrated Visual Augmentation System version 1.2 through a series of fit and comfort tests, weapons compatibility checks and evaluate its lowlight sensor and run mission planning tasks all in a heads-up display, said Lt. Col. Denny Dresch, the IVAS product manager for Program Executive Office Soldier.
If ongoing testing and development go as planned, the 1.2 version could begin production by 2025 for the $22 billion program.
But before then, there will be a series of assessments from the squad to platoon, and possibly even at the battalion level.
“We would like to emphasize testing at scale,” Dresch said. “If afforded the opportunity we would like to be able to test at the battalion size level for the operational tests.”
While the device aims to offer a multitude of individual and squad-level features for each soldier and their team, the device’s ability to turn each soldier into a sensor opens the door for the Army to create a networked battlefield.
Information sharing is key.
That’s because larger efforts of networking soldiers within a squad take on outsized roles as tactical computing expands. Those soldiers can serve as information nodes and sensors for a company, battalion, brigade, or division commander at a tactical operations center some distance from the battlefield.
And tracking individual soldier positions, their condition, or even weapon usage and accuracy through the device gives commanders a wider and deeper insight into what’s happening within their formations.
Formerly that was only available at the unit, perhaps vehicle or aircraft level, and a century-old method of field reports with aggregate data on soldiers’ condition.
The Army ordered 5,000 each of the 1.0 and 1.1 versions from Microsoft in 2022. Approximately 50 of the 1.0 devices are scheduled for delivery to units at Fort Moore, Georgia on September 18, said Frederick Shear, a communications specialist with the Soldier Warrior program. The earlier versions’ evaluation will add more soldier input to ongoing design work on version 1.2 and beyond.
The 1.2 version may be the one soldiers first take to combat, but it will not be the last version of this device, which is designed for regular software and likely future hardware upgrades, he said.
Microsoft, the developer of the device, delivered 20 prototypes of the 1.2 version to the Army in late July, according to an Army release a fiscal quarter earlier than previously scheduled.
The overall IVAS program has seen a few delays from its initial fielding plan due to funding hiccups and technology design that’s pushed the boundaries of what has been done with a first-of-its-kind combined night vision and augmented reality device with wide-ranging applications.
Some applications include mapping, route planning, rapid target acquisition, troop location tracking and terrain modeling, virtual shoot house training tools and “instant replay” style after action reviews, among other features planned for the device.
In 2018, early prototypes of IVAS 1.0 built off the Microsoft HoloLens technology for augmented training, education and gaming. Plans called for fielding an early version of the device by 2022. But early problems with field-of-view distortion, a warping of the visual imagery displayed on the screen, moisture problems and soldier nausea, common with some augmented reality and virtual reality devices, delayed that date by a year.
A subsequent Department of Defense Inspector General’s report, released in redacted form in 2022 raised concern that the service might be wasting funding on a device that soldiers “may not want to use or use as intended.”
But by the time the report had been released, PEO Soldier spokesman David Patterson told Army Times many of the problems listed in the report had been resolved or were in the process of being fixed.
Congressional leaders, however, continued to scrutinize the program, holding back procurement funding beyond versions 1.0 and 1.1 until operational testing of version 1.2 could verify progress on the device.
Army budget requests earlier this year sought $165 million in fiscal 2024, split into $76 million for developing version 1.2 and the remaining for procurement. But until operational testing shows success, that means most of the funding for this version will continue to flow to research and development, said Col. Anthony Gibbs, Soldier Warrior program manager.
In January the Army awarded a “task order” to continue development on version 1.2, which is more ruggedized, has a flip-up style helmet mount instead of the goggle design of earlier versions and a separate controller for ease of use.
The 1.2 version allows for better peripheral view, addresses the warping of the display that caused previous delays and adds an improved lowlight sensor, which puts the device’s night vision capabilities on par with the recently fielded Enhanced Night Vision Device-Binocular.
PEO-Soldier commander Brig. Gen. Christopher Schneider previously told Army Times that the transition from advanced analog night vision technology to digitally based night vision created its own challenges.
Though legacy technology has clear night vision, it doesn’t allow for information sharing and all the applications that the Army wants the device to access.
Schneider emphasized in a 2022 interview with Army Times that while many look at IVAS as a night vision device, it’s better to see it as a way to put cloud-computing capabilities in the hands of an individual dismounted soldier on the battlefield.
And the dismounted part is only one feature.
Early testing has shown that the IVAS can link into tactical Wi-Fi-enabled systems on Bradleys, Strykers and helicopters. In those tests, soldiers have been able to see vehicle and aircraft camera views outside the hull. They’ve been able to pass data soldier-to-crew and vehicle-to-vehicle.
Those are the options that developers aim for with the device — an all-encompassing situational awareness tool. It’s akin to fighter pilot visibility inside the rifle-toting grunt’s heads-up display.
*CLARIFICATION: This article has been updated to include delivery information for the IVAS 1.0 version provided by Program Manager Soldier Warrior.
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.