Perhaps nowhere else in aerospace and defense rugged computing are design tradeoffs more crucial than wearable computing. Warfighters need extremely rugged devices, sunlight readability, and small size and weight, but they also want the benefits and ease of use of today's commercial smartphones.
The optimum soldier's wearable computer hasn't been invented yet, but its future design lies somewhere in the middle between extreme rugged computers and the familiar pocket smartphone. Getting to that design is giving engineers fits as they try to give warfighters everything they want in a wearable computer.
General Dynamics Itronix in Sunrise, Fla., is one of the early makers of military wearable computers. Its initial entry was the GD300 Android computer, which infantrymen wear over their arms just above the wrist. While this design certainly is up to the rigors of the battlefield, other issues are starting to crop up.
"Initially the GD300 was a simple GPS Android computer, ported to Windows-based, situational-awareness software we use in vehicles," explains Tim Hill, senior program manager for small-form-factor wearable computers at General Dynamics Itronix. "That works pretty well. But what happens when I get back inside that vehicle, or back at garrison?" While useful for the soldier on foot, the GD300 can be awkward in a vehicle, and can have trouble accessing commercial cell phone networks when the soldier is not deployed to the field. Plus, the GD300's "cost was pretty high," Hill admits.
The answer, ultimately, appears to be something resembling a field-ruggedized smartphone. "How do I get something that's more like a smartphone, and that gets me into COTS [commercial off-the-shelf technology], and enables me to use the device in garrison?" Hill asks.
There are challenges to doing that, Hill says. First, commercial smartphones are not qualified for field-deployed military operations. Second, commercial smartphone displays are not easily readable in direct sunlight, plus their touch screens don't work while wearing gloves or when wet.
"Commercial smartphones make a lot of sense, but they are designed for you and me, not for soldiers," Hill says.
It is the issue of rugged that might make a smartphone approach to wearable military computers a poor choice, says Michael Boice, vice president of marketing and sales at wearable computer maker Secure Communication Systems in Santa Ana, Calif. Secure Communication is a major subcontractor to Raytheon Technical Services Co. LLC in Dulles, Va., on an Army program called Air Soldier System that is intended to provide helicopter crews with wearable electronics that enhance life support and tactical capabilities.
Raytheon and Secure Communication are providing the personal electronics computer and display system for Air Soldier. The Secure Communication contribution is a 3.5-by-5-inch computer that is one-half inch thick and weighs less than eight ounces.
Smartphone technology often is not rugged enough for battlefield operations, and has trouble with sunlight readability, Boice says, adding that deployed soldiers cannot simply throw a wearable computer away if it breaks. Furthermore, the data they contain can be irreplaceable.
Boice says the answer to the wearable computing puzzle involves commercial technology at the core, and ruggedizing systems for battlefield conditions. Secure Communication uses customized wearable computer technology based on the Intel Atom microprocessor.
General Dynamics Itronix is evolving its wearable computer design from the arm-mount GD300 to one that the soldier mounts to his chest. The display flips down when the soldier needs to access information, but folds out of the way when he's on the move. General Dynamics officials plan to introduce new military wearable computing products in spring 2013, Hill says.
"On a mission, I will put out a device like a Rifleman radio and a voice and data network," explains Hill. "I will connect that to a device that gives me real-time situational awareness and blue-force tracking that is mounted to the chest."
Argon Corp. 678-608-4930
Azonix Corp. 866-929-6649
Black Diamond Advanced Technology 855-855-2328
DRS Tactical Systems 321-727-3672
General Dynamics-Itronix 954-846-3400
Handheld USA Inc 541-752-0313
Honeywell Scanning and Mobility
InHand Electronics Inc. 240-558-2014
L-3 Ruggedized Command & Control Solutions 800-447-4373
MicroVision Inc. 425-936-6847
Motorola Solutions 847-576-5000
Parvus Corp. 801-483-1533
Peratech Ltd. +44 (0)8700 727272
PFU Systems Inc. 408-992-2900
Raytheon Technical Services Company LLC 571-250-3399
Secure Communication Systems Inc. 714-547-1174
Stealth Computer 408-907-9151
Two Technologies Inc. 215-441-5305