Saturday, March 12, 2011

U.S. Army Camouflage Improvement Industry Day Revisited

As we wait for the latest solicitation from the Army's Camouflage Improvement Effort to post on March 18th, we thought it would be interesting to go back and revisit where it all began for those in the industry. One of the attendees Jon Knox, sole proprietor of Better Camo gave us his insight to the event. This young camouflage designer is making his own inroads to have his family of patterns submitted for contention in Phase IV of the Army's Camo Project. 

The US Army's Camouflage Improvement Industry Day was hosted by The US Army Research Lab, Adelphi Laboratory Center (ARL-ALC) on December 9th, 2010, in Adelphi, MD.

We first wrote about the event on December 14th, so it may help to go back and read the overview in our Family of Patterns Competition article along with corresponding reference material for associated key details. Recorded here are the personal experiences of Mr. Knox, and some of the more interesting details of the day's events:

Firstly, I'd like to make sure to mention that all the information presented here is completely unclassified. It was made painfully clear by the Army leadership that all of the material they were presenting to us was nothing that they wouldn't trust to anyone, and probably did so to ensure that information about the event was effectively disseminated with no questions about the legality or ethicacy of doing so.

Secondly, it's good to be early. Once I finally passed security of the ARL Adelphi, I was instructed to head down the hallway to the cafeteria, where several officers eventually gathered to go over the plan for the day amongst themselves. One fellow I sat next to was a Mr. Bob Conklin, who wrote the requirements for the camouflage improvement program. It was the first time either one of us had worked on a project of this nature, or I of this magnitude, so we were similarly uneasy about the upcoming events, and chatted for some time. It was a great way to start the morning, speaking with someone who knew the plan, and was friendly enough to help answer some of my questions. It was from him that I learned that COL W. Cole of PEO Soldier was in charge, and on hand.

Once everyone had gathered in the cafeteria, we were briefed generally on the events of the day, and led to the auditorium. There were no photographs or other recording allowed from within the auditorium, and no cell phone coverage was available.

Some of the more interesting requirements was that the patterns could not be degraded by fire resistance or anti-insect/microbial treatments. That wasn't much of a concern to the camoufleurs in the room, but it sounds like they were speaking to the numerous material suppliers in the room. Indeed, most of the attendees of the event, from what I could tell, were from the manufacturing side of the industry.

There was much talk about the methods of photo-simulation that were going to be implemented in Stage 1. PIP (Picture In Picture) technique was a big one, with the choices for methods of scoring being mean distance until detection, mean time until detection, forced choice comparison, and magnitude estimation. The former two methods seemed to be the preferred methods, with the other two being used in past trials.
In regards to former trials, one of the trials covered in Industry Day material mentions a digital woodland separate from woodland MARPAT, a "MultiBrush" and Desert Brush, "DCU Digital", and the existence of both a "Woodland" and "Desert" Scorpion besides Multicam. (fyi, Scorpion was the pattern Crye Precision's Multicam evolved from).

One of the great reasons for attending the event, as a camouflage developer, was the great effort on the part of the assembled experts to pass on as much information about camouflage science from every field. Every perspective was covered.

Chuck Ryerson gave us the environmental standpoint; how the world was divided up into Military Operation Environments (MOE), which are bands of ecologically similar areas the world around, in which military operations may occur. He elaborated on how the differences in phenology, physiography, and structure of vegetation could all affect the most effective camouflage patterns for each environment. Also, it was mentioned how important the soil type and the seasonal affects on vegetation is to camouflage for each region. Much emphasis was given to operational flexibility.

Dr. Tim O'Neill was on hand, one of the premier camouflage experts of the world. He teaches at West Point, and he had all kinds of interesting anecdotes and tidbits of info from his experiences and research. Among other numerous camouflage credits, he is a patent holder for MARPAT. He shared the tale of how "digital" camo got its blocky look (by being applied on vehicles with 2" paint rollers), and how the NIR reflectance of an object could be reduced by applying Aquanet hair spray. He also mentioned many obvious and not so obvious tips, like how a camouflage had to be seen to be effective, ironically enough, and the "flow" of patterns' transitional elements.

Dr. O'Neill really tore up the US Army's UCP, much to the visible discomfort of the Army officers wearing their ACU in the pattern throughout the room. He also emphasized the need to focus on the "tactical micro-environment" (where the individual soldier will most likely be relying on his/her pattern) when designing patterns, and warned of the consequences of compromise in design. (Once again alluding to UCP)

It was mentioned at one point during the day that only one family of patterns can be submitted per firm. As if someone would submit work that was not their best? Once again, who knows.

It turns out that most firms had brought along 3-5 people to the event, so being a sole proprietor, I was rather out-of-place. I did meet with several representatives from various firms, such as Wil Kuhnlenz from nish, who discussed rapid prototyping uniforms, and Martin Crosley from Tarjac, who discussed the conspicuous lack of snow camouflage in the Camouflage Improvement program.

Fellow camouflage developers represented at the event that I could identify were Bulldog Tactical (Mirage), Military Outdoor Clothing (X-Camo), Digital Concealment Systems (A-TACS), and HyperStealth (Spec4ce, KA2, Snow MARPAT, many more).

I personally had the pleasure of meeting both Phillip Duke, the designer of A-TACS, and Guy Cramer, the designer at HyperStealth. Guy, despite my preconceptions, was very amiable, and was the only person at the Industry Day who had actually heard of Better Camo before (He found it from a blog article by Dominic Hyde of Hyde Definition, maker of PenCott).

FAQ Session:
Attendees with questions after the presentations and lunch were allowed to jot them down on a slip of paper, and place them in a basket for the Q&A panel's consideration. LTC Sloane presided over the Q&A panel, which was sure to be emphasized as joint Air Force / Navy / Army. 

It was indicated that we would see more of this kind of joint-planning and R&D in the future. In fact, when the subject of the joint nature of the Army's camouflage program was being discussed, LTC Sloane stated that "all services will be supplied" with the results of the trials, though it would still be up to each branch as to whether or not to adopt the winning patterns.

-Urban and snowy environments were dismissed, and when the subject of snow camouflage was addressed, the panel stated that the Army would stick to it's current overwhites. This was odd, as the Navy's Marines have a Snow MARPAT, which was apparently ignored. Future developments are uncertain.

-Hard goods were ignored, and only ACUs, helmet cover, and OCIE gear are going to be manufactured at any point in the program. (specifically in Stage 2) During Stage 2, all reasonable costs of production plus profit will be reimbursed to each of the three finalists for at least 18 months.

Better Camo ITX (Transitional Pattern)
-Pattern widths are limited to 60", and experimental printing techniques are allowed as long as it still meets requirements, and does not increase cost much.

-Submissions are not limited to US firms.

-3D camouflage and alternative camouflage garments were dismissed as well.

-The Army will not be seeking exclusive rights to the winning patterns, and will negotiate usage, logos, and prices once the competition is over.

Attending the Army Camouflage Improvement Industry Day was very informative, and a great experience. I'm glad I was able to meet everyone I did, and look forward to the next time I can attend a similar camouflage industry event.

-Jon Knox

Jon Knox is the founder and sole proprietor of Better Camo. At the upper right you can see a prototype example of his transitional pattern "ITX" which makes up one of the three patterns he is currently developing for Phase IV of the Army's Camouflage program. Visit the Better Camo Site for further information about the innovative patterns in development as well as additional photos. Mr. Knox also has a corresponding Blog and Facebook page, where you can keep up to date on the company's latest developments in camouflage design. 

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