As hardware shrinks, ruggedization challenges grow

The military wants more nimble rugged computers that reduce cost, size, weight and power to the warfighter.

Bigger is not always better when it comes to the military's rugged computers. The latest trend is toward small, lightweight computing devices that can work for vehicular and dismounted applications.

With the popularity of the iPad and smart phones in the commercial sector, it was just a matter of time until computer manufacturers that serve the military computing market scaled down the size of their products.

"A few years ago, before there was an iPad and tablets were cool, DRS successfully introduced the tablet form factor to the military," said Bill Guyan, vice president of program and strategy at DRS Tactical Systems, referring to his company's Military Rugged Tablet. DRS has delivered thousands of MRTs to the Defense Department, including the Joint Platform Tablet MRT to support the Army's Movement Tracking System.

"We've seen a migration from mobility to mobility plus portability,” Guyan said. “No longer is it good enough to have connectivity on the move, but commanders also want to be able to take the computer out of the vehicle and use it with them as a moving command post in a dismounted way. That requires lighter, smaller form factors.”

The marketplace is increasingly seeing the introduction of rugged convertible laptops and handheld rugged tablets designed to meet warfighter requirements. However, one size — a smaller size — doesn't fit all military applications. Rugged laptops with greater processing power, memory, data storage, displays and expansion capabilities still have an important place in military computing.

Those systems have varying levels of computer ruggedization depending on the mission, requirements and applications. For example, Panasonic offers business-rugged, semirugged and fully rugged computers to the military for a range of applications and settings, from offices to flight lines and battlefields. The company’s business-rugged C1 Toughbook appeals to executives at the Pentagon, its semirugged Toughbook 52 is suited for mission planning, and its fully rugged Toughbook 31 finds a home in combat vehicles, said Fed de Gastyne, Panasonic’s federal business development manager.

“Even the so-called ‘commercial’ notebooks are becoming more rugged,” said Ashok Jain, product director of common hardware systems (CHS) at the Army’s Program Executive Office for Command, Control and Communications-Tactical. “Companies like Dell, Panasonic and General Dynamics Itronix are in the business of military ruggedized notebooks that have what we call ‘commercial-grade rugged,’ not necessarily sold at Best Buy or RadioShack but certainly for military applications.”

Demand for rugged

A major contract vehicle for military services that need to acquire rugged computers and devices is the Army’s Common Hardware/Software III contract. In 2003, General Dynamics C4 Systems won the 10-year, $2 billion CHS-3 indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contract to provide the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and other government agencies with commercial and rugged computers, network hardware equipment, power subsystems, peripheral devices, and commercial software.

CHS-3 offers products with three levels of ruggedization:

  • V1+: Commercial network hardware enhanced to meet military survivability requirements.
  • V2: Rugged computers that meet Mil-Std 810E/F, Mil-Std 461D and HEMP requirements for military tactical environments.
  • V3: Further ruggedization as applicable for handheld devices.

About 60 percent to 70 percent of the CHS-3 products delivered to date have been rugged systems, Jain said. The source of the Army's demand for rugged computers, in particular, is the service’s digitization and transformation initiatives, in addition to ongoing deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq. CHS-3 uses commercial architectures as the foundation for making tactical computing platforms rugged.

The CHS-3 contract’s most popular V2 rugged laptop is the VT Miltope RLC-3G with a dedicated graphics processor, which delivers fast 3-D video because of its ATI E4690 GPU with 512M of video memory. When it comes to the ultrarugged V3 computers, there is some confusion as to what products are available through CHS-3.

For the last few years, no V3 products have been sold on the CHS-3 although they are available, according to the Army’s CHS office. However, General Dynamics C4 Systems, the prime contractor for CHS-3, insists that it offers V3 products supplied by Elbit Systems of America. Nevertheless, the DRS website promotes its Scorpion Handheld Terminal Unit and Handheld Terminal Unit-Embedded Keyboard systems as products that meet the “most demanding V3 environmental requirements” and are the “Army's choice for CHS-3”.

Meanwhile, the demand for rugged computers has been so great that the Army raised the contract ceiling for CHS-3 in 2010 from $685 million to almost $2.7 billion. The Army might increase the CHS-3 contract ceiling again before reaching the end of the period of performance in 2013. CHS-4, a follow-on contract, will be awarded no later than the second quarter of fiscal 2011 and will run until 2016.

“We are looking at computing devices under the CHS-4 contract to reduce cost, size, weight and power for the warfighter,” Jain said. “We will see more nimble, smaller devices in this next-generation contract.”

Size, weight, power, cost

The size, weight, power and cost of rugged computers are important factors. For the military, there has traditionally been a trade-off between processor speed and power consumption. Warfighter computing requires the increased processing power of multicore processing, but at the same time, warfighters need low-power systems with long battery life.

“The Intel Atom processor boasts very low power consumption and much higher performance, and there is significant demand as well for the Intel Core 2 Duo processor,” said Mike Southworth, marketing director at Parvus, which manufactures rugged embedded computing and IP networking subsystems. “The Intel Atom and Core 2 Duo processors are very popular right now with the military and can be offered in extended temperature ranges to accommodate the extreme environments they operate in.”

“The military wants the latest, greatest processor,” said John Lamb, marketing director at Getac. “The recent introduction of Intel’s Core i7 processor was well received by the military, which wants the fastest processor available to run applications with graphics and video.”

In September, 2010 Getac announced that the Air Force selected the company’s latest B300 rugged laptop and V100 rugged convertible tablet for the service’s Quantum Enterprise Buy — formerly the Quarterly Enterprise Buy — program, the third consecutive time this product line has received a QEB program award.

The Getac B300 is a fully rugged laptop powered by a 2.0 GHz Intel Core i7 processor with Turbo Boost Technology and speeds as fast as 2.8 GHz, which increases overall performance by almost 67 percent compared to the previous generation, Getac’s Lamb said. Similarly, the Getac V100 is a fully rugged convertible tablet that features the latest Intel Core i7 Processor running at 1.2 GHz with Turbo Boost Technology and speeds as fast as 2.26 GHz, which increases overall performance by almost 50 percent compared with earlier models.

“We don’t always have the fastest computer out there, but it’s certainly the most reliable,” Panasonic’s de Gastyne said. “There’s a trade-off between reliability, cost and speed. Typically, in terms of processing speed, you see warfighters using one step back from what’s available at Best Buy. However, it’s certainly going to be reliable and will not fail when it’s most needed.”

Panasonic’s Toughbook 19 fully rugged convertible laptop features the Intel Core i5-540UM processsor with Intel Turbo Boost Technology, while the Toughbook 31 fully rugged laptop computer comes with the option of either an Intel Core i5 or i3 processor.

Getting small

The military has increasing requirements for lighter and slimmer computing devices, with smaller designs that can easily fit into the pockets of standard uniforms. The difficulty is that a lot of handheld computing devices are not rugged enough. Several computer manufacturers are coming to market with rugged product lines that fit the needs of the military for rugged, small computing devices.

“There’s a real tension there because the slimmer, thinner devices that are on the commercial market don’t seem to have that ruggedness,” de Gastyne said.

Getac’s PS236 handheld computer is part of the military’s trend toward smaller, lighter, rugged computing platforms. Lamb said the company’s PS236 is the first fully rugged handheld built to meet Mil-Std 810G with high-speed HSDPA wireless networking, designed for dependability under the most demanding conditions and harshest environments. He said DOD will be deploying 7,000 PS236 systems next year.

In January, DRS Technologies unveiled its new Armor X7 compact tablet that comes with a 7-inch display, weighs 2.8 pounds and has a Mil-Std 810G rating for extremes in vibration, shock and drops from 6 feet.

“There is a great deal of interest in the area of smart phones and the portability and connectivity that comes with those devices,” Guyan said. “However, the limitations of the screen size and computing power of smart phones call for something in between our 10-inch rugged MRT and the smart phone so we introduced the Armor X7 with a 7-inch screen.”

In October 2010, VT Miltrope announced the introduction of its new rugged personal digital assistant, the company’s first offering in the handheld category. The product is undergoing qualification testing. VT Miltope has completed qualification testing on a new RCLC-1 rugged convertible laptop computer with a 10.6-inch display that converts to a tablet.

Hard drives

Hard drive technology has helped the military effectively deal with the problems of size, weight, power and cost of rugged computers on the battlefield. The cost of solid-state hard drives, in particular, have been coming down, making them a viable solution for DOD computing because they take up less space and are more reliable in extreme operating environments.

“Rotating drives typically require some kind of heating to be relied upon in very cold weather,” DRS' Guyan said. “Solid-state drives don’t require that so you instantly pick up some extended capability.”

“Years ago, it was virtually unaffordable, but now companies like Intel are offering solid-state drives in a form factor that is affordable and at a reasonable level,” said Julie Briggs, VT Miltope’s vice president of rugged systems program development, who said her company is offering 160G solid-state drives in a standard configuration. The company has plans to release 300G and 600G versions during the next six months, she added.

The launch of the DRS Armor X7 tablet marked the debut of Intel’s new m-SATA solid-state drives in the rugged market. “The price curve of solid-state drives is finally to the point where the trade-off is a reasonable one, particularly if the application is mission critical,” Guyan said.