When Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) deployed the Android Team Awareness Kit (ATAK) to support the complex communication and coordination needs of the multi-jurisdictional responders. Most of the operators provided with ATAK in Texas had never used it before. Still, the ease of use, situational awareness, cross-agency communication and coordination capabilities of ATAK allowed multiple organizations to coordinate rescues, respond to criminal activity, identify infrastructure breeches and establish perimeters in danger zones, in addition to other collaborative activities.
ATAK is a Mobile, Extensible, Map-Based, Situational Awareness (SA) Software Application for Android that Provides Blue Force Tracking (BFT) to see where team members are (which reduces friendly fire incidents and helps with coordinating movements), “Red Force Tracking” to see where the bad guys are (obvious advantages), as well as terrain, weather, and other topographical elements. It provides them with enterprise information sharing capabilities that will further increase safety, collaboration and mission successes.
Situational awareness is important to the execution of military missions at all levels, from strategic to tactical. To make appropriate, timely decisions in the field, Situational Awareness (SA) needs to be conveyed in a de-centralized manner to the users at the edge of the network as well as at operations centers. Sharing real-time SA efficiently between command centers and operational troops poses many challenges, including handling heterogeneous and dynamic networks, resource constraints, and varying needs for the collection, dissemination, and display of information, as well as recording that information.
ATAK was developed by the US Air Force Research Lab in order to help keep Special Forces safe in war zones. It would show fighter pilots where troops were on the ground, so the pilots wouldn’t accidentally fire on American forces. ATAK focuses on improving the SA of small units at the tactical edge. SA at the tactical edge means knowing where you are, where the rest of your team is, and having a variety of ways to communicate with your team (and, if feasible with reach-back, to operation centers).
The Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is now evaluating the use a mobile app on Android called Android Team Awareness Kit (ATAK or Team Awareness Kit), a GPS communications tool that gives a real-time view of the area of operation, for their frontline personnel.
The DHS considers it as one of those game-changers that dramatically alters the user’s understanding of the action in any given area of operation. The app uses GPS and maps to give the user a real-time view of the area, as reported by the DHS website. Now, Colorado is the only state that has federal approval to take that technology and tweak it for firefighters, according to kdvr.com. In 2018, some Colorado firefighters tested ATAK while battling the Lake Christine, Cabin Lake and Tabeguache fires. They used high-powered radios to create a network, of sorts, in the area to allow the phones to communicate.
ATAK provides a wide variety of geo-spatial and communication tools that have proven themselves in both military and civilian contexts. ATAK has the ability to display a wide variety of map data either stored on the device (i.e., offline maps) or downloaded in real-time from a Web Map Tile Service (WMTS) such as Google Maps or Digital Globe. In addition, ATAK has a wide variety of ways to share SA data, completely separate from the source of the map data. Finally, ATAK has a selection of tools designed to facilitate real-time coordination between team members.
ATAK features and tools
ATAK has a variety of mission planning and execution tools built in.
ATAK was designed to operate on Android devices for a number of reasons. First, Android runs on a plethora of COTS, commodity mobile hardware. This variety of hardware greatly improves the likelihood of finding a platform that will meet size, weight, and power (SWaP) requirements. Second, Android is a free and open platform, making it possible to customize nearly any aspects. Third, there are a number of peripherals available including external radios, position systems, notifications, displays, etc. Finally, the software development kit (SDK) is relatively easy to use and allows for rapid development cycles.
Remote Sensing Data Sources
ATAK can display a variety of remotely sensed spatial data types including:
- Web map/web map tile service (WMS/WMTS) maps & imagery
- Raster files including GeoTIFF, MrSID, and NITF
- DTED elevation data
- MISB compliant full motion video streams
- Georeferenced images and video from ground cameras and sUAS
Maps, and knowing where you are on them, are often the most important aspect of SA, and this is especially true on the tactical edge. Of the many tools in ATAK, the most prominent is the moving map tool. It displays base georeferenced imagery and overlays other SA information (e.g., georeferenced points, annotations, etc.). The georeferenced imagery offers online access to maps and supports many standard formats including NITF, MrSid, Precision Image (PRI), OpenStreetMaps SQLite, Web Map Tile Service (WMTS), Web Map Tile Service (WMTS), Mobile Atlas Creator (MOBAC), Gridded Reference Graphics (GRGs), and more.
Additionally, the mapping engine is extensible, allowing additional map data sources to be added. In addition to base map imagery, the map tool can display many different overlays. Some of the most used overlays include blue-force tracks, points, routes, geospatial annotation _les (e.g., KML), drawing tools, and elevation e.g., DTED. Further, the map tool allows multiple map projections as well as multiple view options (e.g., north-up, track-up).
Annotation Tools: Annotation tools include those tools which allow users to contribute SA information. We distinguish these tools from planning and measurement tools in that the information that is created and visualized by annotation tools is meant to be shared with other actors, whereas information visualized by planning and measurement tools is meant to be used locally.
Routes and Drawing Tools: The route creation tool allows users to produce routes, essentially ordered sets of points and lets the user designate criteria about the route.
Planning and Measurement Tools: ATAK also has a variety of tools meant to help with mission planning and analysis and are designed to be used effectively before, during, and after the mission.
The next set of tools are designed to help users collaborate between multiple instances of ATAK, and in some cases, other mission planning, SA, or analysis tools. ATAK supports all three types of collaborative activities, importing data, exporting data, and real-time sharing.
External Storage Media
All of the collaborative activities require data to be moved to or from one device to another. This can be accomplished by transferring files to/from external storage media (e.g., micro SDcard), by using one of the many networked radios that exist on modern Android hardware (e.g., cellular, WiFi), or by using external networking components (e.g., tactical radios).
ATAK can operate in virtually any type of networking environment.
ATAK enables collaboration of multiple responders and agencies on joint missions by resolving the communication problems inherent in using different equipment, radio frequencies or encryption. With ATAK, operators can immediately and securely communicate and share information that is easy to see, without having to speak to one another.
Moreover, ATAK has been used with communication substrates that are common in both the military and commercial sectors. Any radio that provides an IP layer, from a military tactical mesh network to commercial 3G/4G cellular, can and has been used by ATAK to coordinate both with other ATAK devices and with other tools on the network.
ATAK was designed to be used in an infrastructure-less (server-less) environment while being fully functional. On the other hand, ATAK can make use of infrastructure if available. This makes it possible to have multiple network options and switch over on-demand.
For example, cellular networks and virtual private networks (VPNs) typically prevent the sharing of multicast data. For these situations, ATAK can connect to the Marti information management system to communicate. In situations where multicast is available, such as most tactical MANETs and many WiFi routers, ATAKs can collaborate without the Marti server.
Geospatial Data and File Sharing
Points, routes, drawing objects, and files can be shared through ATAK. ATAK maintains a list of contacts (i.e., other ATAK instances), which is displayed when a user elects to share data. Sets of users can be aggregated in the following two ways: (1) groups and (2) teams. Groups are sets of contacts that a user
ATAK also contains text chat and presence tools. Presence is presented in ATAK’s contact list. Green, yellow, and orange indicators display information about the time since ATAK last received an heartbeat message from that user. Clicking on any user, group, or team in the contact list displays a chat window that allows users to communicate via text. While most chat clients require a server, ATAK’s chat feature can operate in a server-less environment. If a Marti server is available, ATAK can also utilize it for passing text chat messages.
Another resource that is common to tactical environments is video. Whether from a Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) or from Unattended Ground Sensors (UGS), video can contribute significantly to SA, especially when it comes to red-force tracking (the opposition forces do not usually wear tracking devices so that we can plot their positions in real time). ATAK has a built-in video player that can play video from 95% of the video encoders on the market and supports a variety of protocols, such as User Datagram Protocol (UDP) multicast, Real Time Streaming Protocol (RTSP), and Motion JPEG (MJPEG)
- ATAK can display live video via downlink or internet-based stream.
- ATAK can also display video clips loaded onto the device.
- If the video meets MISB full-motion video standards the location of the aircraft and sensor point of interest will be displayed, and the video can optionally be overlaid on the map in real-time.
Sensor Tasking and Control
Related to the video tools, ATAK offers support for closed-loop video control for gimballed EO/IR sensors. That is, video sensors that can be slewed and zoomed relatively (e.g., pan 5° to the right) can be controlled directly from within ATAK
ATAK also has support for numerous peripherals, including laser range finders, notification devices (e.g., smart watches), external GPS, and more. Additional peripherals can be supported through ATAK’s plugin architecture.
ATAK provides a wide variety of geo-spatial and communication tools that have proven themselves in both military and civilian contexts. It has been widely adopted in the military, law enforcement, and first-responder communities.