Tablets hit the battlefield

Army looks to field a family of common computers, displays.

Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect that the Air Mobility Command is an Air Force command.

In an effort to modernize its combat vehicles, reduce costs and better enable shared situational awareness, the U.S. Army is pursuing next-generation computing and display systems that minimize size, weight and power requirements for vehicle-mounted electronics. Central to this initiative is the leveraging of rugged tablet computers that can be used inside Army vehicles and then easily removed for use on foot by soldiers.

"We're seeing greater adoption of the tablet because of its flexibility to work in a dock mounted in vehicles and support dismounted or dismountable operations, so it actually replaces two pieces of equipment, if you will, for that purpose," said Bill Guyan, vice president of strategy for DRS Network Imaging Systems. "The digitization trend has clearly taken hold, pushing the services to put more capable electronics into their vehicles, both in terms of the size and weight constraints that the vehicles have but also the power constraints that they have on the platforms."

To address these challenges, the Army in June 2013 awarded DRS a contract worth $455 million for the production of the Mounted Family of Computer Systems (m-FoCS) that will be installed on ground vehicles and weapon platforms to provide modular computing capabilities. Under the m-FoCS contract, DRS will provide dismountable tablets, platform-computing servers, docking stations, interconnecting cables, installation kits and three sizes of ruggedized, sunlight-readable touchscreen displays for more than 40 types of ground vehicles and weapons.

"There's real interest in devices that might be able to do more than one function, so that they can start shedding some of the boxes that in the past were fielded to vehicles in a programmatic stovepipe," said Guyan. " It takes up less space in a vehicle because you have the combined computing display that can be mounted on a flat surface inside the vehicle."

Downsizing systems

The Army's goal is to reduce the overall size, weight, power and cost of the computer and display systems installed in ground vehicles and platforms. Cost, in particular, given budget cuts, is a big driver for the service as it seeks to create a family of common computer and display technology.

The m-FoCS hardware will use a set of computing technologies and standards established in October 2010-- the Common Operating Environment, or COE-- to enable secure and interoperable applications to be developed rapidly that can function across a variety of computing environments. The Army Mounted Computing Environment is one of six computing environments that support this goal. The other five environments include: dismounted handhelds, sensors, real-time safety critical, Tactical Operations Centers and Command Posts and the Data Center Cloud.

Among the goals of the m-FoCS contract is for DRS to reduce the size of its widely fielded JV-5 ultra-rugged vehicle computers and displays by half to facilitate several vehicle mounting scenarios. The m-FoCS contract is the follow-on to the Force XXI Battle Command Brigade-and-Below (FBCB2) hardware contract, and at the heart of m-FoCS is the tablet computer.

"We were the first to field tablets in any volume to the military and we're the largest provider of rugged tablets to the services," said Guyan, referring to DRS's Military Rugged Tablet product line which is used by about 15 programs.. Over the pastdecade , DRS claims it has delivered more than 180,000 FBCB2 and 25,000 Movement Tracking systems to U.S. ground forces , which provide Blue Force Tracking of friendly forces and situational awareness.

"It's going to be a new family of computers that are meant not only to meet the requirements of the FBCB2 program but also the requirements of other battle command programs… such as the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical," said Guyan.

Enhancements to processors, memory and storage will significantly improve processing capacity and the overall efficiency to run the fielded FBCB2 system and the next-generation software applications such as the current Joint Battle Command-Platform.

Under the JBC-P program, DRS claims a fielded base of more than 200,000 systems, and m-FoCS is meant to supplement those digital capabilities in a next-generation tablet and other computers in multiple hardware configurations. They will also be interoperable with legacy systems.

"The tablet is catching on as a very flexible form factor and, of course, soldiers are looking for that touchscreen-type of user interface," said Guyan. "This generation of soldiers is more comfortable with it than prior generations, who really wanted a keyboard. And, the software that's being developed now to go into computers is suitable for touch-screen interfacing. Tablets couldn't be used in the past because software didn't support touch-screen interfaces."

iPads in the cockpit

While the Army looks to leverage rugged next-generation tablet computers for use in combat vehicles, the Air Mobility Command has purchased more than 16,000 Apple iPad 3 tablets to serve as an "electronic flight bag" for aircrews, replacing traditional paper-based navigation charts and flight manuals used in the cockpit that can weigh as much as 100 pounds .

"Paper is heavy and expensive to produce and distribute, and to replace that paper we had to move to a digital format to display all these documents," said Jeff Shields, project manager and technology advancement branch chief in AMC's Directorate of Communications at Scott Air Force Base. "It makes more sense to have a tablet. It's much lighter, more portable and the user experience is better, easier to use, with faster access to the documents in a tablet format."

The iPads, which weigh less than 3 pounds each, eliminate "cockpit clutter" and ensure that flight-critical data is at the fingertips of aircrews that have global missions for transporting materiel and personnel, according to Air Force Maj. Brian Moritz, the flight bag program manager. Moritz said pilots are now able to exercise what he calls the "CTRL F" function, a word search that makes it easy to, for example, quickly find specific information in the 3,000-page flight manual for the C-17-- a process that used to be time consuming.

The iPad-powered flight bag is also more cost effective. AMC estimates that over the next 10 years the Air Force will save more than $50 million by moving to a tablet device and cutting fuel and paper and printing costs. That figure, however, does not include man-hours saved from the iPads, Moritz said.

When it comes to ruggedizing iPad 3s for the cockpit, AMC utilizes OtterBox tablet cases to protect the corners of the devices and their screens from damage. "They're fairly rugged. They're not as rugged as maybe the Panasonic Toughbooks, but the majority of these devices aren't being used in maintenance roles or being tossed about," said Shields. "We settled on the OtterBox because of the protection that it gives the devices plus it's a fairly economical case."

So far, of the more than 16,000 iPads that AMC has issued to aircrews, only two tablets have been broken-- one of which was left on the top of a car and ended up on a highway entrance ramp.