Mobile mashup: The military's proliferating mix of smartphones and tablets

DOD is using mobile devices in conventional and unconventional ways, which brings a lot of challenges to go with the convenience.

Shaw AFB tablet app

The Air Force is using tablets as electronic flight bags to replace bulky paper-based maintenance and flight manuals.

Smartphones and tablets are rapidly making their way into military operations, trimming costs and giving warfighters tightly focused capabilities. But these benefits raise a host of challenges, ranging from security and the need for ruggedization, to requirements for peripherals that link to devices designed for consumers, not soldiers.

Military leaders are endorsing the role of these handheld systems, though their implementation may evolve slowly, as technical specialists grapple with myriad issues. Military electronics have always been designed for specific roles and given to select personnel. Now, technology experts must grapple with the emerging bring your own device (BYOD) movement, in which rapidly-changing equipment from Apple and a range of Android suppliers must all be connected in compatible networks.

The spectrum of challenges is as varied as the systems themselves. Security and reliability are foremost among them. These traits span many fields, from supplying peripherals such as secure GPS receivers to securing equipment and managing apps developed by suppliers and warfighters.

Tablets and smartphones are self-contained devices that can be operated without additional hardware, but many military users will need peripherals that augment built-in equipment. For example, commercial equipment suppliers don’t worry much about security when they incorporate GPS receivers. But military users need GPS data that’s accurate and reliable.

Vendors are looking to meet that demand. Rockwell Collins, for example, has developed its Remote Secure Receiver, which can turn a commercial device into a secure system that ensures that a warfighter’s GPS information isn’t being jammed or spoofed. The module, already being acquired by the Battlefield Airmen Office of the Air Force Special Operations Command, is designed to work with smart phones and tablets.

Rockwell Collins Remote Secure Receiver

A GPS receiver from Rockwell Collins protects commercial tablets from hackers who want to spoof or jam signals.

“The need for trusted position, navigation and timing (PNT) is vital. The GPS jamming and spoofing threat is growing,” said Mike Jones, vice president and general manager of Communication and Navigation Products for Rockwell Collins. “The impacts of unassured PNT can be deadly. When navigating without a secure military GPS device, in a jamming or spoofed environment, a soldier’s position can be greater than 500 meters off in just five minutes.”

The tablets themselves must also meet military requirements for ruggedness. Many leading hardware suppliers are starting to ship ruggedized machines for industrial consumers and others who want equipment that can survive in harsh environments. Companies including Dell and Samsung recently rolled out tablets that perform better in drop tests and other trials. While their systems don’t meet the environmental levels provided by ruggedization specialists like Panasonic, Amrel, Xplore Technologies and Getac, commercially-available equipment from these corporate giants could fill the bill for many military applications.

Some military uses don’t require much ruggedization. The Navy, for instance, plans to start its eSailor initiative this fall by giving tablets to 200 recruits at Recruit Training Command Great Lakes, Ill. This pilot study may eventually be expanded to provide all naval personnel tablets so they no longer have to wait to share common computers while they’re at sea or in barracks. Installing secure Wi-Fi networks will be a central element in this strategy.

Many more pilot programs are helping planners weed out the glitches that come when new equipment is integrated into large, complex technical systems. In fields as diverse as education and aviation, military developers are leveraging knowledge gained in commercial fields. In commercial aviation, tablets have largely replaced electronic flight bags (EFBs) that are typically loaded with paper charts and other flight-related information.

The Air Mobility Command estimates that using Apple iPads eliminates 40 to 70 pounds of paper, which yields considerable fuel savings when spread across the military’s aircraft fleet. Tablets make it simpler to update information while also reducing printing costs and helping DOD achieve its environmental goals, even in situations where maintenance crews had already traded in their EFBs for digital manuals.

The Air Force first began testing using mobile devices for maintenance and flight manuals more than a decade ago and various pilots have refined the approach. A year ago, for instance, a 10-member pilot test team assigned to the command’s directorate of logistics kicked off an iPad pilot at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., to see if iPads could replace the more expensive Toughbooks they were already using.

U.S. allies are also racing to leverage the power and ubiquity of these portable devices. Late last year, the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence detailed plans to expand the use of smartphones and tablets. Some pilots are being given Apple iPads to replace EFBs, while some soldiers will be allowed to access their personnel files using their personal phones.

Protecting data

While BYOD brings many benefits, it also raises serious security issues. As in other fields, planners are trying a range of strategies to ensure that security isn’t compromised.

Late last year, the Defense Department migrated from a process run by the Defense Information Systems Agency to a National Security Agency program that relies on private laboratories. A key driver behind the change, which moves security reviews to the National Information Assurance Partnership, was to ensure that commercial mobile technologies are secure when they’re attached to military networks.

Given the spate of data breaches at major corporations last year, it’s no surprise that phone and tablet makers are beefing up their security features. Fingerprint identification got a boost when Apple incorporated the technology in 2013. Other suppliers followed suit, simplifying log-ons while making it more difficult for unauthorized users to use a lost or stolen phone. According to IHS Technology Research, shipments of fingerprint-enabled handsets and tablets will reach 1.4 billion in 2020.

Commercial fingerprint readers aren’t ruggedized for military environments, but fingerprint detection techniques that mesh more closely with military requirements are emerging. In early March, Qualcomm unveiled an ultrasonic fingerprint reader that can read fingerprints even they’re dirty or wet. That could be a beneficial advance for military users, who often work in less than ideal conditions. The sound waves can also pass through glass, aluminum, stainless steel and plastics, making it easier to integrate the fingerprint sensor into ruggedized military hardware. 

Tablet and smartphone suppliers are adding more security layers, enhancing protection by providing defense-in-depth. BlackBerry and Samsung are now working together to provided multiple levels of hardware- and software-based protection. Samsung’s technology permits multiple identities using what’s called a virtual SIM. That could be used to isolate secret and non-critical communications. The two companies will combine these concepts with BlackBerry’s highly secure network infrastructure and its cross-platform enterprise mobility management solution.

Apps aplenty

The adoption of tablets and smartphones comes in conjunction with the military’s expanding interest in apps for these devices. App libraries are popping up and expanding throughout the armed services. Military equipment suppliers also are beefing up their capabilities.

For example, an app from iRobot is making it easier to control unmanned vehicles. The company’s uPoint MRC system runs an Android app that provides a common look and feel for all iRobot vehicles. Warfighters can use tablets to manage robot operations, including driving, manipulation and inspection, allowing operators to focus more on the mission at hand instead of control techniques.

"Success as a robot operator during high-stress, critical operations depends on precise and reliable control, so the interface needs to be intuitive," said Frank Wilson, senior vice president and general manager of iRobot's Defense & Security business unit. “The uPoint MRC system drives mission effectiveness by decreasing training time and increasing overall ease of use.”

Army brain thermometer

An Army medical app can help diagnose brain trauma in a matter of minutes.

The Army’s medics may soon deploy a smartphone app that's been dubbed a "brain thermometer," Lt. Col. Chessley Atchison, the program manager for the Technology Enabled Capability Demonstration, said early this year. The Defense Automated Neurobehavioral Assessment can help isolate depression, post-traumatic stress, and other neurocognitive issues, including concussion. The app from AnthroTronix will not replace the mandated pencil-and-paper Military Acute Concussion Evaluation in the field, but it can supplement that information, Atchison said. The app is currently being studied in a joint effort by the athletic department at the University of Wisconsin and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Many of the mobile apps being developed by the Army connect with its Nett Warrior smartphones, which are stripped down Android devices (currently Samsung Galaxy Notes) that run an NSA-approved Android OS and are loaded only with Nett Warrior apps. These include situational awareness tools that connect only with other Nett Warrior users and apps such as the Blue Force Tracking Joint Battle Command-Platform, a GPS-enabled system for locating friendly, as well as enemy, forces.

Military personnel are also writing apps. The 375th Communications Support Squadron's USAF Air Mobility Command KC-10 Load Management System Team developed a load management app that decreased load times by more than 40 minutes. Once their app was proven, it was shared with other teams developing similar apps, saving the Air Force $30,000.