NGA apps for GEOINT facilitate mobile, tactical tools

The drive to make smart phones and tablets a viable communication tool for warfighters in the field is moving forward at a rapid pace.

The drive to make smart phones and tablets a viable communication tool for warfighters in the field is moving forward at a rapid pace. A variety of government agencies are funding development programs, while suppliers are racing to provide the tools needed to help make apps readily available.

Apps bring many benefits, giving users an easy way to get software that meets their specific requirements. Apps also leverage the rapid technological advances of smart phones and tablets, which offer lower costs in addition to their computing capabilities. These factors are among many that have brought widespread support for the effort to make apps a common tool for warfighters.

“What the Defense Department and the intelligence community, needs is an app store,” GEN Keith Alexander, the National Security Agency’s director, said at the GEOINT 2012 conference. “What we have to do is create apps for the cloud, put them up there, verify that the apps work as intended, and then let the analysts and people choose the apps that they want.”

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) is among the organizations that are pressing to make apps available to those in the field. At GEOINT 2012, NGA Director Letitia A. Long cited progress in the agency’s efforts to stock an app store.

“At this point we have about 150 apps in our apps store,” Long said. That’s a 50 percent increase over a year ago. As the program expands further, the focus will shift to apps developed by outsiders. Nearly NGA staffers developed 80 percent of the existing apps.

Long said that by next July, she would like to see 75 percent of those apps coming from others. That will free up NGA personnel to work on “that exquisite GEOINT” while also leveraging the creativity and innovation that industry can bring, she added.

Industrry Develops Apps

Companies throughout the supply chain are working to provide government agencies with creative and innovative software. Many are developing apps and the infrastructure needed to support app stores. Others are partnering with app developers to help programmers quickly create software that accesses large, complex databases in fields such as satellite imagery.

“A lot of what we do is to provide software for embedded app developers. That makes it easier for them to write apps that work with our data,” said Ben Conklin, product engineer at Redlands, Ca.-based Esri. “Most of these programs are still in R&D, some are going through field trials.”

Throughout the industry, equipment suppliers are racing to make apps useful in the field. Harris Corp. recently rolled out KnightLite, a backpack-sized tactical cellular network solution that enables the use of smart apps in the battlefield. KnightLite can run apps and it is compatible with smart phones and tablets, so apps on these handhelds can be integrated into the network.

Raytheon recently upgraded its Raytheon Advanced Tactical System, which leverages the Android portables to give warfighters in the field access to Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance and Geospatial Visualization data. Raytheon has also developed an app store called Appsmart, which is being used by the U.S. Army to develop a service so it can distribute apps written by military personnel and outsiders.

The Army’s prototype system may be integrated into a larger program being developed by the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA). In October, DISA opened a solicitation for the Department of Defense Mobility, Mobile Device Management-Mobile Application Store.

The device management system will start with around 260,000 devices that use an architecture that could eventually be expanded to include all DOD personnel. DISA’s app store request requires extensive security requirements including the ability to wipe a device that’s been lost or becomes untrustworthy for other reasons.

Security is a critical aspect for handhelds, which eventually could be carried by all military personnel. Last fall, the National Institute of Standards and Technology solicited a vulnerability analysis and security scanning study for the Pentagon’s Android software applications.

The effort to migrate this technology into the field quickly has developers exploring different concepts in an effort to shorten development cycles. Some have turned to open-source software, which provides a range of tools and reusable software modules that helps teams get apps completed and tested quickly.

“In a matter of three months, we managed to use a combination of open-source and our own algorithm development to develop a mobile app that is able to handle LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging), other geospatial phenomenologies like commercial imagery, also full-motion video,” Alex Cooper, a systems engineer at SAIC in McLean, Va., said in a GEOINT 2012 panel in October. “It’s kind of a technology driver, open-source.”

Improving Apps Stores

As app stores move forward, strategists are already looking at further steps that will give warfighters ready access to all approved programs. One idea is to make it very simple for authorized personnel to see what apps are available and download them without having to get approval from the app store management.

“One of the first things I think about is the self-serve environment. If the data is enabled and we have an open IT environment and you can get to it, that’s less that I need to do,” Long said. 

Additional Online Resources

Letitia Long Speech at GEOINT

NGA app store

Harris KnightLite

Raytheon Appsmart

DISA request for Department of Defense Mobility, Mobile Device Management-Mobile Application Store