Rugged laptop computer makers take aim at unique demands of battlefield computing

Posted by Skyler Frink

PRODUCT INTELLIGENCE, 16 Feb. 2012. Demands are high on rugged laptop computer technology for military applications. On the network-centric battlefields of today, users rely on rugged laptops to deliver and process mission-critical information quickly. New applications are being designed as soldiers, sailors, and airmen carry these rugged computers on the front lines to provide intelligence and ever-increasing functionality for warfighters.

Of course, the first thing military customers want from their rugged laptops is right in the name: ruggedness. “The most important aspect is that rugged laptops do exactly what they say they do; the term rugged gets thrown around a lot, says Tim Collins, director of federal defense & intelligence at Panasonic Solutions Co. in Secaucus, N.J.

When the information being sent and received from a laptop can save lives, system failure is not an option, despite the many threats to laptop computer reliability in the field. Dust and water particles can enter a system and prevent pieces from working properly. Laptops can be dropped, or suffer through heavy vibrations while on an airplane or helicopter. The companies that design these products have been working to keep up with these threats.

“A lot of improvements are around materials management, improving the durability and survivability of the system; how can we look at the way the plastics are designed to absorb more impact?” explains Joe Trickey, rugged mobility and digital forensics marketing manager at Dell Inc. in Round Rock, Texas. Manufacturers are creating new materials and improved casings constantly to shield laptops from complete submersion in water, physically jarring drops, and hostile-environment conditions.

Ruggedness isn’t the only hardware advancement expected for rugged laptops. "I think the next thing you're going to see is going to be twofold, probably in the glass -- active touch screen and resistant touch through gloves, multi-touch technology," says Dell’s Trickey. Innovations in the glass also will facilitate affordable laptop displays that are outdoor- and sunlight-readable, or even readable through night-vision goggles.

In addition to hardware improvements, new applications are being designed to provide more utility to warfighters. A recent example is the Biometric Automated Toolset (BATS) that scans fingerprints and documents at military checkpoints to keep IDs on suspects and keep track of movement. Panasonic’s Collins describes the BATS as “One of the greatest non-invasive tools available to warfighters.”

With the constant advances in rugged laptop technology, there are many possibilities buzzing about. "Once you have the platform as a base, there is a solutions capability that you can now evolve upon,” Dell’s Trickey says. "Mobile digital forensics product that allows the warfighter to go into an enemy combat situation and retrieve enemy hard drives off notebooks, memory sticks, cell phones or cameras. Using that rugged notebook and giving it to military collections teams in the field provides a great benefit that now gives them things that they need to do to extract information and support the overall mission."

The rugged laptop seems to have found its niche in high-performance tasks that also require high mobility. "I think you're probably going to see the rugged laptop will always have its place in a vehicle or tactical environment," Dell’s Trickey says. "The individual warfighters aren't going to need as much, so they may use a slate." Laptops will have a use by performing the heavy lifting, such as the applications mentioned earlier, that needs to be done less frequently.

Rugged laptops look like they’re here to stay, and will continue evolving to fit the warfighter’s needs. Panasonic’s Collins explains the industry’s outlook on the future, "You just don't know where the next theater will take place, but we will be designing for that environment.”

Rugged laptop company list

American Reliance Inc.
El Monte, Calif.

Argon Corp.
Great Neck, N.Y.

ASUSTeK Computer Inc.
Fremont, Calif.

Azonix Corp.
Billerica Mass.

Broadax Systems Inc.
City of Industry, Calif.

Cyberchron Rugged Systems
Cold Springs, N.Y.

Dell Inc.
Round Rock, Texas

DRS Tactical Systems
Melbourne, Fla.

Elbit Systems of America C4I Solutions
Tallahassee, Fla.

General Dynamics C4 Systems
Scottsdale, Ariz.

General Dynamics Itronix Inc.
Sunrise, Fla.

Getac Inc.
Irvine, Calif.

Handheld USA Inc.
Corvallis, Ore.

Hewlett-Packard Inc.
Palo Alto, Calif.

IBI Systems Inc.
Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Industrial Computing
Waltham, Mass.

Intermec Inc.
Everett, Wash.

MilDef AB
Helsingborg, Sweden
+46 42 250000

Madison, Ala.

Motion Computing Inc.
Austin, Texas.

NEXCOM International Ltd.
Fremont, Calif.

NextComputing LLC
Nashua, N.H.

Panasonic Solutions Co.
Secaucus, N.J.

Panther Computers
Milton, Fla.

Roper Mobile Technology
Tempe, Ariz.

Rugged Notebooks Inc.
Anaheim, Calif.

Secure Communication Systems Inc.
Santa Ana, Calif.

Stealth Computer Inc.
Woodbridge, Ontario

Trimble Navigation, Ltd.
Sunnyvale, Calif.

Two Technologies Inc.
Horsham, Pa.

VT Miltope Inc.
Hope Hull, Ala.

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