Could lasers solve the military's friendly-fire problem?

By Maria LaMagna, Special to CNN

(CNN) --- A member of Tom Potendyk's unit in Desert Storm was killed by friendly fire. Keith Kellogg also experienced a blue-on-blue killing while he was serving in Panama during Operation Just Cause.

Now, the pair are executives at Cubic, a company that has developed a device that could significantly reduce military deaths caused by friendly fire. Called the DCID-TALON, or Dismounted Combat ID with Target Location & Navigation, the device incorporates laser technology to combat a lack of situational awareness, which is one of the most common causes of friendly fire deaths.

The DCID-TALON works when its user spots a target in his or her scope. The shooter aims the device, which sends an encoded message by laser beam. If the target is friendly, the message will reflect off of the target’s retroreflectors (they are the size of a postage stamp and can be embedded in the soldier’s helmet and uniform; each soldier would be outfitted with multiple retroreflectors), and the device will display the word “friend.”

The entire process takes one-tenth of a second.

    Cubic has invested more than $25 million in developing the technology, and Kellogg and Potendyk say it works by cutting down on two of friendly fire's common causes: identification and location errors. Troops are often victims of friendly fire if they are misidentified, or are mistakenly in the wrong place, the execs say.

    Friendly fire is an age-old problem. Blue-on-blue incidents have occurred from the Civil War mortal wounding of Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson to the publicized fratricide of Pat Tillman, who was killed in 2004 during active Army duty in Afghanistan.

    When using the DCID-TALON, they will able to identify “friendlies” and locate them at distances of 800 meters (although, in testing, the technology has identified them from even farther away). The device has a built-in GPS and Bluetooth capabilities.

    To prevent opposing forces from taking advantage of the technology and mislabel themselves as friendlies, the retroreflectors also can be reprogrammed as needed.

    The military currently uses low-tech means of protecting against friendly fire, such as painting symbols on the sides of vehicles and employing “glint tape,” to identify troops, Kellogg says. Friendly fire-reducing technology is applied currently to vehicles, so soldiers on the ground lack protection.

    “We believe very strongly you need to take this capability to the next technological level and put it in technology a soldier uses. It’s absolutely a game changer for whoever you give it to on the ground,” Kellogg says.

    Beyond use in the military, Cubic sees potential for the DCID-TALON to be applied to other sectors, including law enforcement, Potendyk says.

    The technology tested well under many different climate conditions at BoldQuest 2011, a capability assessment program held annually at Camp Atterbury in Indiana. Soldiers tried out the DCID-TALON in various scenarios while walking, riding in vehicles and in simulated combat. It performed well in these scenarios, as well as with added obstacles of trees, haze, smoke, rain, sun, through windows and at distances.

    Still, Potendyk and Kellogg say additional testing and funding are necessary in coordination with the military before the technology potentially ends up in troops’ hands. The device must be “hardened,” or undergo additional environmental testing and be outfitted with a GPS chip only the military can provide. After this is completed, in theory it would take a short time to be utilized, the men say.

    In the meantime, other allied troops, including those in Canada, have expressed interest in using the Cubic technology, the men say.

    The U.S. Army could not be reached for comment about whether it is considering using the DCID-TALON. The Canadian armed forces declined to comment on possible plans to utilize the technology as well. Since there is no technology standard among its allies, the Canadians said, there is no equipment project underway to acquire identification technologies.

    “The Canadian Army is investigating various advanced combat identification procedures and technologies with our allies,” Veronique Cantin, a spokeswoman for the Canadian Defence said in an e-mail.