USA — Device helps Soldiers communicate with Afghan citizens

FORT HUACHUCA, Ariz. — Smart phone. Trans­la­tion Sys­tem for Tac­ti­cal use. TransTac. Machine For­eign Lan­guage Trans­la­tion device.
Although it goes by many names, this device per­forms one func­tion, speech-to-speech trans­la­tion, and it’s a tech­no­log­i­cal solu­tion capa­ble of fill­ing in the gaps when there aren’t enough human lin­guists avail­able.

The TransTac is but one example of the new technology developed to assist the warfighter in the field. It translates English into Pashto and Dari, and vice-versa, which assists with communication between Soldiers and Afghans.
The TransTac is but one exam­ple of the new tech­nol­o­gy devel­oped to assist the warfight­er in the field. It trans­lates Eng­lish into Pash­to and Dari, and vice-ver­sa, which assists with com­mu­ni­ca­tion between Sol­diers and Afghans.
Pho­to Cred­it: Cour­tesy Pho­to.
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The TransTac device, which will be field­ed for the first time to the 101st Air­borne Divi­sion (AASLT) to Afghanistan before the end of the cal­en­dar year, will be used by Sol­diers to trans­late Eng­lish to Dari or Eng­lish to Pash­to, and vice-ver­sa.

The per­son­nel in the Train­ing and Doc­trine Com­mand Capa­bil­i­ty Man­ag­er-Bio­met­rics and Foren­sics team at Fort Huachu­ca are the capa­bil­i­ty devel­op­ers for the TransTac device.

Patrick O’Mal­ley, a machine for­eign lan­guage trans­la­tion sub­ject mat­ter expert with TCM-BF, says their job is to study the Army’s needs. While doing that, they fol­low the method­ol­o­gy of “what’s the gap between where we are today and where we need to be?”

“One thing we noticed is we can’t speak the lan­guages of Afghanistan, and DLI (Defense Lan­guage Insti­tute) can’t train enough peo­ple fast enough to learn those lan­guages. So there’s our gap,” he explains.

“The human lin­guist is still at the top, espe­cial­ly the con­tract inter­preter who knows Eng­lish and Dari [or Pash­to] very well,” O’Mal­ley notes, adding the device does not elim­i­nate the need for inter­preters, but it does allow the inter­preters to attend to high­er-lev­el tasks.

“You want the inter­preter ques­tion­ing the most impor­tant peo­ple, but if you want to screen peo­ple … this is ade­quate just to find out who’s who,” O’Mal­ley says. “For inter­ro­ga­tion, you need a human. A machine is not going to under­stand the sub­tleties of speech, like whether somebody’s lying to you … where a human inter­preter could.

“The con­cept of a talk­ing phrase book has been around for 15 or 20 years,” O’Mal­ley explains, but the pre­vi­ous devices Sol­diers used had phras­es they could choose from, but the device did not have the capa­bil­i­ty to allow Sol­diers to ask their own ques­tions. Also, there was no capa­bil­i­ty for the oth­er per­son to respond.

The project began about four years ago, with a device that could trans­late Eng­lish into Iraqi-Ara­bic and vice-ver­sa. Sol­diers used lap­tops at the time, but the feed­back TCM-BF was get­ting is Sol­diers want­ed a small­er device.

So they began to look for a more com­pact device with capa­bil­i­ty to assist Sol­diers and inter­preters. They looked at dif­fer­ent ways to pro­vide this tech­nol­o­gy by estab­lish­ing a pro­gram of record. While this is being built, TCM-BF per­son­nel also look for a short-term solu­tion, called a quick reac­tion capa­bil­i­ty. The Defense Advance Research Project Agency does research and seeks ven­dors to build the prod­uct, and the gov­ern­ment will select the best ven­dor before they field the device.

Putting some­thing on a smart phone is eas­i­er because Sol­diers already under­stand the tech­nol­o­gy, O’Mal­ley explains.

There are two pro­to­types the Army is con­sid­er­ing using. The first includes each speak­er hav­ing a phone. Speak­ers can com­mu­ni­cate back and forth using their own phones (push-to-talk), which work up to 100 feet away. The oth­er option is using one device the speak­ers pass back and forth.

O’Mal­ley says the devices and appli­ca­tion are sim­ple to use and describes it as a “state-of-the-art” smart phone.

There are voice com­mands, such as “play instruc­tions,” and the phone will give the instruc­tions, in Pash­to or Dari, on how to use the phone.

“Not only does it say and syn­the­size what it would be in the oth­er lan­guage, but it also tran­scribes it in writ­ing on the screen,” O’Mal­ley explains, not­ing the writ­ing on the screen is ben­e­fi­cial if the oth­er per­son does­n’t hear the words right or if they’re in a noisy envi­ron­ment.
“We trained Sol­diers how to use these, and it did­n’t take more than 10 min­utes,” he says, adding there are oth­er “niceties” in the phone’s pro­gram­ming such as recon­fig­ur­ing the phone or chang­ing the tar­get lan­guage.

Although the device has to adjust to a voice, O’Mal­ley says the smart phone does a good job of rec­og­niz­ing a voice.

One of the poten­tial issues TCM-BF per­son­nel noticed was lim­it­ed bat­tery life. Since smart phones have large proces­sors and these devices have three net­works — cel­lu­lar, Blue­tooth and WiFi — O’Mal­ley says they were con­cerned about the bat­tery life. They per­formed tests and they real­ized the phones were get­ting four hours of bat­tery life.

“That was a prob­lem. Four hours isn’t good enough,” he says. “We decid­ed to shoot for 12 hours because a mil­i­tary mis­sion could be up to 12 hours long.”

They turned all the net­works off and per­formed a few mem­o­ry man­age­ment tasks, and were able to get up to 22 hours of bat­tery life if they were just using the speech-to-speech trans­la­tion appli­ca­tion.

The TransTac will be used at check­point oper­a­tions, base secu­ri­ty and med­ical prob­lems. The high­est-lev­el task they would tack­le with the device is tac­ti­cal ques­tion­ing.

Also, the device keeps a log file, so if some­thing impor­tant was said dur­ing the con­ver­sa­tion, the Sol­dier can upload the tran­script, which can be used by an intel­li­gence ana­lyst.

This is the first field­ing of these devices, and is con­sid­ered the oper­a­tional assess­ment for the capa­bil­i­ty. The goal of the oper­a­tional assess­ment is to see if the tech­nol­o­gy is ready to field the­ater-wide.

O’Mal­ley says Sol­diers need to be aware that not all the Afghans will have the same reac­tions to the device. The Sol­diers will need to be sit­u­a­tion­al­ly and cul­tur­al­ly aware of, and sen­si­tive to the country’s envi­ron­ment.

He also says this is part of the vision of “con­nect­ing Sol­diers to dig­i­tal appli­ca­tions,” and the long-term goal is to pro­vide each Sol­dier a smart phone dur­ing basic train­ing.

Dur­ing this first field­ing, TCM-BF per­son­nel will pro­vide Sol­diers with sur­veys to com­plete and tac­tics, tech­niques and pro­ce­dures for using the device.

There is also a sec­ondary pur­pose for the phone, and that is to help Sol­diers learn the lan­guage. O’Mal­ley says in the future, the Army will be able to add oth­er lan­guages if the Sol­diers need that capa­bil­i­ty.

The Army would like to intro­duce more spe­cial­iza­tion capa­bil­i­ties such as name recog­ni­tion, or com­bat life-sav­ing knowl­edge and first aid. They also hope to improve the device by train­ing it on spe­cif­ic mis­sions, which will improve the vocab­u­lary.

US Army

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