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iPads, Android tablets and smartphones join the military

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

March 16, 2011 05:59 AM ET

Computerworld - 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 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.

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