ATAK: Team Awareness Kit

Powerful situational awareness tool in a smartphone app, from the Air Force Research Laboratory

“Black Hawk Down was the motivational scenario for me,” says Principal Engineer Ralph Kohler of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Information Directorate, referring to the fateful 1993 Battle of Mogadishu, in Somalia. “People could not execute their missions because they didn’t know where everyone else was. The system didn’t work.”

By 2007, Kohler had help build and transition tactical laptop-based mapping software for Air Force Special Operations Combat Controllers, but he wasn’t satisfied. During a trip to Afghanistan, Kohler started talking with colleagues about using cell phones rather than computers for mapping and collaboration. They experimented with an SMS text messaging system, but could only take the idea so far on the flip phones of the day. Still, Kohler’s group persisted in refining the use of cell phones for information management (IM): getting information to users who needed it, when they needed it, despite low bandwidth and competing priorities.

“In retrospect, focusing on information management and making it work well on a cell phone is why ATAK won out over similar applications,” says Kohler.

ATAK—the Android-based “Team Awareness Kit” (also known as Tactical Assault Kit)—is the ultimate warfighter tool, neatly packaged in a smartphone app. Introduced in 2010, ATAK brought to fruition the mapping and collaboration technology Kohler had envisioned in Afghanistan, enabled at last by the smartphone revolution. ATAK offers military users online and offline mapping, web browsing, location marking and sharing, navigation, voice and text communication, photo and video sharing, site survey tools, and precision targeting, among other features.

The technology grew out of an internal, informal collaboration between AFRL scientists and engineers (S&Es) and the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC). During that early work, Kohler received valuable feedback on the IM software, which came to be used extensively in exercises by AFSOC and other special ops groups. A major breakthrough occurred when Kohler decided to use NASA’s WorldWind Mobile as a base for an Android app to showcase the IM capabilities he and his team had developed. WorldWind is an open-source software that overlays NASA and U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) satellite imagery, aerial photography, and topographic maps with a COLLADA (Collaborative Design Activity) file format that allows file exchange among various graphics applications.

With the new technology in hand, “We decided to share the application and source code with any government organization that wanted it,” Kohler says. And because he and his team at AFRL had been working on tactical IM for a number of years, they had a lot of connections with a wide variety of real-world users.

“When we wanted to start sharing ATAK,” Kohler says, “we already had an extensive Rolodex of interested people.” Thanks to that network of ready users and his “government open source” approach, many organizations across the DoD were soon using and building on ATAK, rather than developing their own smartphone-based mapping systems from scratch.

“We would come up with new concepts and paradigms,” Kohler says, “then work closely with users to see how they played out.” Kohler believed that having a supporting team of specialists, rather than a single prime contractor looking to optimize profits, would result in a better overall product, so he assembled a stable of experts in such fields as graphic user interface, imagery rendering, video compatibility, and sensor integration.

“We would ‘audition’ new contractors by having them do a small project on ATAK,” Kohler says. “If it worked out, we’d consider growing the contribution.”

In the meantime, other Android-based mapping apps were showing up in the marketplace, and Kohler realized that those other apps would soon push their way into DoD use unless he got ATAK out there and firmly imbedded first. Competing apps would threaten future interoperability among military users, and result in greater costs to taxpayers. In addition, Kohler believed that most of these other apps would not meet U.S. military needs nearly as well as the ATAK app that his group had developed and DoD already owned. To get the ATAK technology adopted as quickly and widely as possible, Kohler hatched the idea of offering a simple, low-cost licensing plan that would let private companies easily license the software. ATAK was built around a plug-in architecture that allowed developers to add functionality. So with share-ware type licensing, the government—and everyone else—would get any and all improvements made on the original software. Companies could develop and provide new products or versions to users, and users would get continually improving technology at competitive prices.

Closing the licensing loop, Kohler and a small group of collaborators designed a highly accelerated non-exclusive license agreement that could be completed largely online. It was the first of its kind for the DoD, developed with critical assistance from AFRL’s legal team, the then-manager of AFRL’s Office of Research and Technology, Frank Hoke, and TechLink, a DoD Partnership Intermediary that helps establish license agreements between DoD labs and industry nationwide.

“We looked at ways to duplicate the kind of click-through licensing that occurs when you update or buy software on the internet,” says TechLink Senior Technology Manager, Sean Patten. “It was a radically different approach for the DoD. Instead of the many months that it usually takes to complete a standard license agreement, we wanted to compress the licensing time frame down to a few days.” This was successfully accomplished with a “click-through” non-exclusive license agreement hosted on the TechLink web site.

The strategy worked, and within months of offering ATAK online, some 50 companies had licensed the software to incorporate into new products. Today ATAK is being used by the military, first responders, and consumers, for application in recreation, energy, transportation, gaming, social networking, incident command, event management, and law enforcement. ATAK has played a security role in a number of high-profile cases, including situation control during the hunt for the Boston Marathon bombers in 2013. That same year, a study by the Army Geospatial Command compared the two-dozen or so Android-based mapping apps available, and only two—ATAK and industry giant Esri’s Commercial Joint Mapping Toolkit—met the DoD’s threshold requirements. Both had comparable capabilities and identical risk profiles, but ATAK was one-third the long-term cost, and came with full source code for the government. In 2015, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency reported that ATAK was used in a successful demonstration of the Persistent Close Air Support Program. And in 2016, Kohler won the Air Force Senior Scientist/Engineer of the Year award for his work on ATAK.

ATAK now has thousands of users across the DoD. In addition, it is used by the FBI, Secret Service, Homeland Security, and other federal agencies as well as a rapidly growing number of civilian adopters.

“ATAK is a prime example of tech transfer serving the military and the nation in exactly the way it should,” says Patten.

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