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Bringing AR to the battlefield: Microsoft signs $21.9bn contract with US Army

Author : Sophia Bell, Assistant Editor, DPA

07 April 2021

Microsoft wins a $21.9bn contract to deliver more than 120,000 augmented reality devices to the US Army.

(Image: Shutterstock)
(Image: Shutterstock)

On Friday 26 March, the US Army awarded Microsoft a major contract to produce augmented reality (AR) technology, based on its existing ‘HoloLens 2’ device called Integrated Visual Augmented Systems (IVAS).

The technology was originally designed for the entertainment and video game industries and is commercially available for $3,500 per headset. It has now been adapted to the battlefield. The military-grade version will allow soldiers "improved situational awareness, target engagement, and informed decision-making necessary to achieve overmatch against current and future adversaries," the Army said in its Statement of Objectives.

The IVAS goggles utilise various technologies, including high-resolution night and thermal sensors, to allow soldiers to fight, rehearse and train in a single platform. 

According to the Financial Times, the augmented reality devices are “networked together, so commanders back at base can effectively see what soldiers are seeing in real time, and soldiers can receive live footage captured by drones. The mobile computers, which are fitted with artificial intelligence chips, also track soldiers’ eye and hand movements live, and monitor what they say.”

AR is used to superimpose images over the terrain, expanding the user’s existing field of view and allowing soldiers to see behind defensive walls or around corners, for example. 

“Soldier lethality will be vastly improved through cognitive training and advanced sensors, enabling squads to be first to detect, decide, and engage,” the US Army stated.

The contract will initially cover five years, with an option to extend for an additional five years. 

It builds on a previous agreement in 2018, which granted Amazon $479 million to create the prototypes for the augmented reality devices. The latest contract, announced on Wednesday 31 March 2021, will push the IVAS headsets to the production phase and onto the battlefield. 

The close relationship between the tech giant and the military was further cemented in 2019, when Microsoft was awarded a $10 billion contract, called Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, (JEDI), to provide a cloud storage system for sensitive data to the Department of Defense. This decision threatened Amazon Web Service’s position as the leader in the cloud industry, which prompted the rival company to wage a legal battle in federal court, claiming the decision was politically motivated by former President Donald Trump's public dislike of the company and its CEO, Jeff Bezo.

Microsoft faced further controversy from its own employees: in 2019, a global coalition of almost 100 workers wrote an open letter to the company, demanding that the IVAS contract should be cancelled and Microsoft should cease developing weapons technologies.

“We are alarmed that Microsoft is working to provide weapons technology to the US Military, helping one country’s government ‘increase lethality’ using tools we built,” the letter stated.

“The application of HoloLens within the IVAS system is designed to help people kill. It will be deployed on the battlefield, and works by turning warfare into a simulated ‘video game’, further distancing soldiers from the grim stakes of war and the reality of bloodshed.”

“As employees and shareholders, we do not want to become war profiteers. To that end, we believe that Microsoft must stop in its activities to empower the US Army’s ability to cause harm and violence.”

This was not the first time that employees had condemned the company’s participation in the military. In the previous year, the company faced backlash for its work in developing facial recognition technology for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an agency that was responsible for separating migrant children from their parents at the US-Mexico border.

Despite such protestations over the years, Microsoft plans to move forward with the current deal, “We always appreciate feedback from employees and provide many avenues for their voices to be heard,” a Microsoft spokesperson said in response to the backlash.

“We’re committed to providing our technology to the US Department of Defense, which includes the US Army under this contract. We’ll remain engaged as an active corporate citizen in addressing the important ethical and public policy issues relating to AI and the military.”

The contract will see more than 120,000 devices delivered for the Army’s entire Close Combat Force (CCF) and will be worth up to $21.9bn (£15.9bn) over the next 10 years.

“The partnership between the Army and Microsoft illustrates areas that the Department of Defense and industry can work together towards achieving modernisation priorities in the interest of national security,” the US Army concluded. 

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