Rugged tablet computers ride the commercial wave, and come into their own among aerospace and defense users

Tablet computers built rugged enough for aerospace and defense applications have been around for decades, yet for much of that time have been considered somewhat of an oddity. Military computer users get it when the topic drifts to rugged laptop and portable computers, but tablets always have been primarily something someone else might be able to use.

Not so today. What's changing attitudes about rugged tablet computers in aerospace and defense circles are the ubiquitous Apple iPad, iPhone, and other smart phones with multi-touch screens that have become wildly popular since their introduction. Now the tablet computer is mainstream and no longer an oddity, and rugged computer manufacturers who serve the defense industry are making up for lost time.

"We feel good that we're in the rugged tablet business, because we see the market moving in our direction," says Bill Guyan, vice president of programs and strategy for rugged computer maker DRS Tactical Systems in Melbourne, Fla. "The tablet is an elegant way for people to stay connected and do their jobs." Guyan says DRS has seen brisk aerospace and defense business not only for the company's Military Rugged Tablet (MRT) computer, but also for its newly introduced industrial-rugged ARMOR line of tablet computers.

"Tablets are a hot topic right now because of what is going on in the consumer space," says Patrick White, vice president of strategic marketing at General Dynamics Itronix in Sunrise, Fla. "Tablets bring new software capabilities, finger gestures, and multi-touch capabilities that enable us to reduce the display size on tablet computers from seven or nine inches, and get the same functionality you get in a 12- or 13-inch display."

Interest in tablet computing in the military community mirrors interest in commercially available tablet computers and the rapidly growing universe of tablet and smart phone applications from Apple, as well as from open-source software developers working with the Linux-based Android mobile operating system.

Android is an open-source mobile operating system based upon the Linux kernel, and has a large community of developers writing application programs. More than 70,000 Android applications are available, which makes it one of the most popular mobile operating systems.

"The emergence of the iPad and iPhone are getting customers more familiar with the use of touch screens," says DRS's Guyan. "We have made tablets for more than 20 years, but there was always a preference for a keyboard interface. Now our military customers are getting more comfortable with touch screens and the multi-touch technology to expand or contract a picture and the other kinds of things you can do with an iPad."

Some rugged computer manufacturers caution military users against using consumer-grade devices in the field, even though these devices are seeing such widespread adoption.

"You have these guys climbing up into a C-5 [cargo jet], which is like climbing up several stories in a building," says Fed de Gastyne, business development manager for the federal team at Panasonic Solutions Co. in Secaucus, N.J. "My concern is please don't take anything up in the aircraft that is not MIL-STD-810G tested. With a consumer product, heat will kill it, and a drop will kill it. What does a mission failure cost? That's the bottom line.

Company listing

Amrel Computer Division; El Monte, Calif.; 626-443-6818; www.amrel.com/rugged-computers

Argon Corp.; Great Neck, N.Y.; 678-608-4930; www.argoncorp.com

Broadax Systems Inc.; City of Industry, Calif.; 626-964-2600; www.bsicomputer.com

Cyberchron Rugged Systems; Cold Springs, N.Y.; 845-265-3700; www.cyberchron.com

Dell Inc.; Round Rock, Texas; 800-915-3355; www.dell.com

DRS Tactical Systems; Melbourne, Fla.; 321-727-3672; www.drs-ts.com

Elbit Systems of America C4I Solutions; Tallahassee, Fla.; 850-350-8444; www.talla-tech.com

General Dynamics C4 Systems; Scottsdale, Ariz.; 480-441-3033; www.gdc4s.com

General Dynamics Itronix; Sunrise, Fla.; 954-846-3400; www.gd-itronix.com

Getac Inc.; Lake Forest, Calif.; 949-699-2888; www.getac.com

IBI Systems Inc.; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; 954-978-9225; www.ibi-systems.com

Industrial Computing; Waltham, Mass.; 781-890-3111; www.industcomputing.com

Intel; Chandler, Ariz.; 480-554-8080; www.intel.com/go/military

Intermec Inc.; Everett, Wash.; 425-348-2600; www.intermec.com

LogIn Crete AB; Helsingborg, Sweden; +46 42 250000; www.login.se

MaxVision; Madison, Ala.; 800-533-5805; www.maxvision.com

NextComputing; Nashua, N.H.; 603-886-3874; www.nextcomputing.com

Panasonic Solutions Co.; Secaucus, N.J.; 888-223-1012; www.panasonic.com/toughbook

Roper Mobile Technology; Tempe, Ariz.; 480-705-4200; www.ropermobile.com

Rugged Notebooks Inc.; Anaheim, Calif.; 714-998-1828; www.ruggednotebooks.com

Rugged Portable Systems; Santa Ana, Calif.; 714-547-1174; www.rpseagle.com

Stealth Computer Corp.; Woodbridge, Ontario; 905-264-9000; www.stealthcomputer.com

TAG; Dulles, Va.; 703-406-3000; www.tag.com

Trimble Outdoor Computers; Sunnyvale, Calif.; 800-874-6253; www.trimble.com/Outdoor-Rugged-Computers

Two Technologies Inc.; Horsham, Pa.; 215-441-5305; www.2T.com

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