BY John McHale
Designers of rugged handheld devices for military systems, such as tablets, want the features that top every military engineer’s high-performance technology wish lists—lower size, weight, and power (SWaP)—but what they really need is something that can survive and perform consistently in a harsh battlefield environment.
“Military tablet customers have many of the same wants as desktop customers—faster processor, light weight, long battery life, low cost—however, the most important capability that our customers look for is mission-critical reliability,” says Bill Guyan, vice president of programs and strategy at DRS Tactical Systems in Melbourne, Fla. “Initially, computers were introduced to the battlefield and treated as nice-to-have systems. Today, in the networked era, computers are the entry point to the network for soldiers and leaders—and they must be demanded upon to work.
“Reliability for rugged tablets means: Warfighters can read it in the direct sunlight of the desert; can use it in the hottest heat of the desert; can use it in the cold weather of the Arctic; can drop it and it won’t stop working; can mount it to an M-ATV or M1A1 Abrams and use it on the move; and can use it in the rain and in the dust,” Guyan says.
Steve Motter, vice president of business development for IEE Inc. in Van Nuys, Calif., says users of his company’s handheld products also want rugged features. Typically, they are looking for “a small, lightweight, handheld device with a touch-screen display, designed to include sufficient environmental sealing to withstand the extreme environments found in a military application.
|The DRS Joint Platform Tablet (JPT) has a 10.4-inch, rugged, sunlight-readable, touch-screen display and 1.66-gigahertz Core 2 Duo processor.|
“Our customers are looking for an [Apple] iPad or [Google] Android-based tablet that is capable of being dropped in a puddle, exposed to sand and dust, withstand a high humidity environment, and operate with a gloved hand,” Motter adds.
“The tablet business is growing,” Guyan says. “User familiarity with touch-screen interfaces has increased user acceptance and actually created a user demand for the more flexible tablet form factor. The tablet PC is well-suited for use as a dismountable network device because it is optimized for SWaP. It reduces the space claim required for mounting inside a platform and is also easily stowed or carried by the dismounted soldier. In fact, we began to see an increased demand for tablets from the military market before commercial products like the iPad were launched.”
The biggest challenge for rugged handheld systems has become security, Motter says. “The handheld device’s operating system must provide the facilities to host applications and data that have different levels of classification. We are investigating the use of data/processing partitioning inherent in higher performance single-board computers or MILS (multiple levels of security). This could allow for the use of open-source Android apps and custom classified military applications operating within the same handheld device.”
The DRS Joint Platform Tablet (JPT) is the company’s latest rugged tablet product, Guyan says. It has a 10.4-inch rugged, sunlight-readable, touch-screen display, 1.66-gigahertz Core 2 Duo processor, 4 gigabytes of RAM, a 128-gigabyte solid-state hard drive, two hot-swappable and rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, and optionally available embedded commercial or SAASM GPS, embedded TACLINK, vehicle mounting installation kit, external keyboard, and secure rugged thumb drive.
“We are expanding our product offering to include multiple form factors for different user profiles,” Guyan says. “For example, some users want a smartphone form factor to stow in their pocket.”
IEE engineers offer the Hand Held Control Display Unit (HH-CDU), a sunlight-readable, military- qualified unit with an optional zeroize switch under an accident-proof cover, Motter says.
The device meets MIL-STD-810 shock, vibration, altitude, blowing rain, sand and dust, salt fog, explosive atmosphere, and immersion specifications, and operates from -40 to 70 degrees Celsius. It also features a night-vision B-compatible backlight keypad with MIL-P-7788 edge-lit type keys and a super twist wide-view liquid crystal display with unfiltered backlight and night-vision B-compatible backlight.