By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
Oct. 15, 2008 - As a reserve affairs soldier serving in Iraq in 2005, Andy Castro saw a problem. Fresh drinking water systems took too long to set up, there was little standardization, they produced poor water quality and often failed quickly for a lack of maintenance, he said.
So, Castro returned to the United States, quit his full-time job, worked with the local Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter to raise money, teamed with a handful of guys who could help him design a solution, and started a business called Alrafidane, an Arabic word meaning "between two rivers."
Today, in the Pentagon courtyard, Castro set up and demonstrated a system that he said can produce thousands of gallons of clean water every day, cheaply, quickly and reliably.
"It takes me 20 minutes to set up. I push the green button, and I walk away," Castro said. "It's designed to be simple. It's designed to be user-friendly, so anyone can operate it."
Castro is part of about a dozen companies gathered in the Pentagon courtyard for a STAR-TIDES research demonstration that runs through tomorrow.
STAR-TIDES stands for sustainable technologies, accelerated research - transportable infrastructures for development and emergency support. The program is headed by the National Defense University and serves as a worldwide network of defense leaders, educators, and technical experts and civic and industry executives who work to match experiences and technologies to aid relief efforts for people suffering in areas ravaged by war, disaster or poverty.
Today's U.S. national defense strategy calls for the Defense Department to work harder at working better with the civilian agencies with which it inevitably finds itself sharing battle space, either in combat or in humanitarian missions. Also, in recent years the U.S. military has taken a forward-leaning approach toward the use of its "soft power," or using humanitarian and other types of aid to build trust with other countries in hopes of preventing or shaping future conflicts.
"The reason why this is of interest to the military is we can't do it all ourselves," said Linton Wells II, distinguished research fellow and force transformation chair at the university. Wells leads the STAR-TIDES program. "We've seen in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and in the tsunami and [Hurricane} Katrina -- that it has to be a partnership between business and government and civil stakeholders."
STAR-TIDES and its network hopes to provide solutions to make the civil organizations work more effectively, Wells said. And it hopes to help the military fit more seamlessly with the other organizations. STAR-TIDES also hopes to leverage technologies to lower the costs of rendering aid for both civilian and military organizations, Wells said.
One of the single greatest obstacles to overcome when several different agencies deploy to the same location is simply being able to communicate, said Brad Barker, president of The Halo Corp. Every agency operates its own specific types of radios, cell phones and computer networks, he said.
"Everybody's scratching their head going, 'What kind of connector or what kind of standard are you on?'" Barker said.
In the Pentagon courtyard, Barker rolled up what appeared to be a simple white trailer hitched to the back of a truck. In fact, it was a mobile wireless center that pulls a broadband signal from a satellite and connects the communications equipment of all agencies -- even military units -- operating in the area.
"Remember the old-school, downtown Mayberry operators? ... We're, in essence, doing that type of connectivity," Barker said.
The trailer has its own power source, provides Internet and phone service, and manages all of the radio frequencies within range.
"This unit comes into play after a man-made or natural disaster when all critical infrastructure is wiped out," Barker said. It also works in third-world countries that have no infrastructure, he said.
"It's a cell phone company. It's an [Internet service provider]. It's video surveillance, and it's all interoperable no matter what agency," Barker said. "All this thing has to do is be around. ... All you have to do is push to talk."
Remarkably, the system he has put together was not designed as a single system by defense contractors or corporate engineers. All of the components to the system can be bought off the shelf at electronics and computer stores, he said.
Solar Stik demonstrated a solar generator its makers said would replace the need for portable gas-powered generators in the field and eliminate the need for the logistics support to fuel and maintain the generators.
Solar panels charge battery packs that then store the power for when it is needed. This is more efficient and less costly, Brian Bosley, the company's chief operations officer said.
First, no fuel is needed, so there is no ongoing cost to keep the generators running. Also, a typical generator is capable of outputting much more energy than is required, yet it consumes the same amount fuel regardless.
"Nine times out of 10, the gas generator is not supplying all of its capable power to the connected appliances," Bosley said. "You may be using 10 to 20 percent."
Using the solar generators, only the energy required is drawn. The system stores the power and supplies it on demand. The system is rugged, can be air-dropped into remote locations, and is "plug-and-play," so set-up takes only minutes, Bosley said.
This is good for powering field medical clinics, emergency communications equipment, lighting and other requirements in an area where there is no electricity, he said.
Retired Army Col. Albert Zaccor, also with Solar Stik, said the system is maintenance free, self-sufficient and requires no logistics support.
"[The United States doesn't] want to give people systems ... that are going to demand a lot of follow-on support, because they are probably going to look to us for it," Zaccor said.
While the upfront cost for the solar generator is more than that for a gas generator, the savings is made up over time in fuel costs, Zaccor said. And taking U.S. servicemembers driving fuel trucks off of dangerous, bomb-ridden roads pays a much higher dividend than fuel cost savings, he noted.
"It's not just money. Think about every guy who is driving a fuel truck hitting an [improvised explosive device]," Zaccor said. "Every guy that we don't have in a fuel truck hitting an IED is one less casualty we have to worry about.
"We're not counting dimes, but we are counting lives," Zaccor said.