iPads, Android tablets and smartphones join the military

Contractors build military apps for use with cheaper, consumer-grade devices

Shooting turtles or attacking enemy warplanes with game apps on an iPad is child's play compared to the apps two military contractors are planning for use with low-cost, consumer-grade tablets and smartphones.

For example, Harris, a Pentagon contractor with experience in commercial broadcast video products, is working on an app for Apple's iPad and other tablets that will allow a soldier on the ground to use touchscreen gestures to remotely move a camera aboard an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) to find enemy weapons or troops, while watching what the camera sees on the tablet. The video information, combined with data about location and time, can be quickly transmitted using Harris video technology to a network manned by intelligence commanders around the globe who could make quick decisions about military targets.

Meanwhile, Pentagon contractor Intelligent Software Solutions (ISS) is readying a field test for Android and iPhone smartphone apps that will tell a soldier arriving in a war zone what fighting and bombings have already occurred at that precise location. Geo-mapping on the smartphones would be super-imposed with historical data sent wirelessly from a command center, showing the locations and types of encounters -- from shootings and bombings to arrests -- to better prepare troops on the ground.

The applications from Harris and ISS rely on relatively inexpensive smartphones and tablets, company officials said, either from Apple or various Android manufacturers. Such devices might cost $300 to $800 apiece, compared to super-rugged gear previously used in military operations that can cost $10,000 or more per device because they can withstand dust, drops and vibrations.

Another benefit to using commercially-available smartphones and tablets is that soldiers and other users know about them from civilian life, lessening the training time dramatically, an ISS executive said.

"We've seen first-hand what happens to a laptop used in the desert [in combat], so there's going to be some problem with...these [consumer handheld] devices that are fairly inexpensive and almost disposable," said Rob Rogers, vice president of national systems for ISS.

"But if they break or get dust in them, you don't have to shell out a lot to replace them," he said. "It's a trade-off. I would anticipate a lot of broken Androids and iPhones."

One of ISS's major goals is "to use off-the-shelf, widely used and generally accepted products...to drive down costs for the government," Rogers said.

Since so many military personnel know how to use newer smartphones and tablets, rolling them out to soldiers and other military and law enforcement personnel means "we will not need a week-long training session."

ISS has built its mobile intelligence visualization and event reporting application to run on multiple sizes of displays and form factors, Rogers explained. He would not disclose any terms or details of the ISS contract for the software with the Pentagon, however.

Harris is planning to demonstrate its remote camera guidance app for iPads or iPad 2s that could be used with military-grade UAVs at the National Association of Broadcasters conference in mid-April, said John Delay, director of architectures for emerging business at Harris.

Delay said Harris believes the military, law enforcement and various businesses will want to be able to use tablets and smartphones to remotely control cameras. One reason that current tablet technology is viable for overhead surveillance is because image display quality has improved dramatically in the past three years, Delay said. Until recently, images were too grainy or unclear to provide reliable information.

"We're going to see even more compelling devices," he predicted.

Using the iPad or iPad 2, a soldier on the ground can move a camera on a UAV or other airborne vehicle, he said. "You can steer the camera and look at what you want," Delay said. "There's a lot of interest in this. If you can use sensors to give the ability to grab control of a camera and look over a hill [from the UAV], that is huge."

That approach would eliminate the need for expensive ground control systems for cameras, he said. In the Harris example, the soldier with the iPad would not actually control the UAV's flight and direction -- just the camera, he noted.

Because the Harris video technology relies on the Internet Protocol, the video data can be transmitted over any wireless link, Delay added.

Harris also envisions such things as a soldier at a military checkpoint conducting a video interrogation of a suspect with a standard iPhone or Android phone, then uploading that video to a back-end system where the subject's face could be analyzed with facial recognition software. In the same way, photos could be quickly taken of vehicles and licenses for comparison with historical data, Delay said.

The video capabilities of inexpensive smartphones and tablets are pushing defense and public safety authorities to change their thinking about technology, Delay argued. "They are realizing that the media and entertainment industry are going faster than they can go, and for the first time in history, commercial developers are ahead, so they are looking to adapt those technologies," Delay said.

"They are using $10,000 wireless receivers today, but with mobile devices costing $400, those can be ruggedized [with cases and other gear] and the costs are minimal," Delay said.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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