Military ruggedization on the ropes

Are formal ruggedization practices and procedures necessary for a military that increasingly relies on commercial-off-the-shelf computing and communications gear? Perhaps not.

Besides enhancing device reliability, fast and easy field serviceability also plays an important role in maintaining data security. “If you're in danger of the enemy capturing you, you must remove your hard drive and destroy it in front of an officer,” Holleran said. “Well, if a bunch of people are shooting at you, I don't know about you, but I'm not going to get out a screwdriver and start turning a bunch of screws.”

They were called “boat anchors” — the giant military radios of the 20th century designed to be as durable as a slab of cast iron, yet only slightly heavier. You can still view many of these monstrosities in military museums, at radio collector flea markets and on the Web. But today’s military increasingly relies on computing and communications gear that’s lightweight, inexpensive and easily replaced. In an era of less costly and rapidly evolving technologies, the need for long-term durability — and extensive ruggedization — has significantly diminished.

Surprisingly sturdy

Commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) consumer devices, such as smart phones, are surprisingly sturdy, lessening the need to acquire “mil spec” devices that have been extensively and expensively ruggedized, said Mike McCarthy, director of operations and program manager of the Army Brigade Modernization Command. “There were a lot of concerns in the beginning that the technology was not durable enough to put into an operational environment,” he said. “We found that that's not entirely accurate with reasonable measures, the same kinds of precautions that you would take with your own personal phone.”

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Real-world experiences have so far confirmed McCarthy’s expectations. “In roughly 18 months of testing hardware in realistic operational conditions, we've only had two phones that broke,” he said. “One was allegedly dropped on a carpeted floor of an office and broke into three pieces; the other one was run over and crushed by a 12-ton, mine-resistant armored vehicle after a soldier who was wearing the device in a pouch in his armored vest took his vest off and set it on the ground.”

McCarthy noted that the lower prices of most COTS technologies makes it unnecessary in most cases to order specially ruggedized versions. “The cost of it is affordable, so if you do have something that's lost, destroyed or damaged beyond repair, it's not a huge financial setback for the government,” he said. “We don't have to spend $2,500 to harden a $200 phone; it just doesn't make good fiscal sense to do that.”

Technology contractors, of course, are always more than willing to produce devices that can withstand a fall of a dozen or more feet or that won’t be squashed by a passing M1 Abrams or even a C5 Galaxy. “There are a lot of companies out there that would love to sell the government a ruggedized phone that is virtually bullet proof, but it really isn't necessary,” McCarthy said. “We don't need to make them hugely shock resistant, hardened and expensive, the things we've got commercially available have proven to be more than adequate and sufficient.”

Some added protection, when necessary, can be easily acquired through COTS accessories. “There are companies that will make hardened cases that are a little more expensive, but they're reasonably priced — in the $25 to $30 [range] at unit cost,” McCarthy said.

Also, ad hoc ruggedization can be used to protect COTS devices. “When soldiers are operating in a wet environment, their favorite level of protection is a zip-lock bag,” McCarthy said. “Well, you can put the phone inside a zip-lock bag and protect it from moisture; if it falls in the water or gets rained on, it's not going to be affected.”

Marine proof

Maj Nathan Cahoon, C4 Branch Head at the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory’s Technology Division in Quantico, Va,, also feels that ruggedization requirements and procedures need to keep pace with technology evolution. He believes that an attitude shift is already underway. “It's a fairly popular thing to look at right now within DOD, this concept of taking COTS items that run on GOTS (government off-the-shelf) software and having almost disposable devices,” he said. “You harden it to a degree where it physically makes sense, and then if something were to happen you just swap out devices.” He noted that such an approach saves both time and money when compared with “trying to harden something from the beginning.”

Cahoon said field testing and “life force experimentation” are better than formal laboratory analyses for ensuring that COTS devices are ready for theater use. “We actually will take them to the field and give them to actual Marines to use in real exercises,” he said. Cahoon noted that when ruggedization is needed, the Marines can usually do the job themselves. “We do have to do a certain level of ruggedization and a certain level of protection,” Cahoon explained. “We'll take technologies in their current state and we'll modify them to a state to where we can employ them.”

The Marines are currently evaluating the Nexus One, an Android smartphone made by Taiwan’s HTC. “We're using it as a mini computer to be a terminating device for a data network in a tactical environment, so it's plugged into our radio network and it's receiving all the data — there's no cell capability,” Cahoon said. The technology will allow Marines to check their e-mail messages, view maps and complete a variety of other data-oriented tasks. “Obviously, we have to do a certain level of ruggedization on these devices,” Cahoon said. “We definitely look at survivability — but also it needs to be ‘Marine proof,' ” he said. “That's kind of tongue-in-cheek, but it's also a reality: we're pretty rough on items.”

Larger form factors

Even with many larger form factor COTS systems, such as portable computers and vehicle mounted radios, there’s a gradual trend away from cast iron machines toward systems that can be quickly serviced in the field rather than sent back to a maintenance facility. “Theater repair — that's what they call it when they're in battle conditions,” said Mark Holleran, president of Xplore Technologies, a ruggedized table computer manufacturer.

Holleran said his company’s systems are designed to be put back into service quickly, with components that are modular and easily accessible. “In our technology there's a tool-less removable hard drive that can have one or two solid-state drives in it,” he said. “We also have tool-less access to the SIM (subscriber identity module), tool-less access to the SD (Secure Data card) socket and screw access to the radio bay.” The fix-it-on-the-fly approach lessens the need for excessive ruggedization, which adds system weight and makes devices more difficult to transport and use. “Our [tablet] device is around five pounds, but our competitions’ is around 8 or 9 pounds,” Holleran said.