The changing technology landscape: rugged, portable computing for the modern warrior

On today's network-centric battlefield, unmanned vehicles, satellites, ground vehicles, and warfighters on foot transmit and share information. With so much data at hand, rugged, portable computing devices have become a necessity to keep warfighters up to date. With portable form factors, such as tablets and smartphones, warfighters can access the information they need where and when they need it.

Rugged, portable computing devices enable warfighters to stay in touch with their colleagues without being a burden. These systems are lightweight, rugged, secure, and suitable for a wide variety of demanding environmental conditions.

Smartphones enable individual warfighters to access the military network, providing them with situational awareness and communications.
Smartphones enable individual warfighters to access the military network, providing them with situational awareness and communications.

Laptop demands drop off

In the recent past, rugged laptop computers were considered essential for the network-centric battlefield, but today these devices often are considered to be too large and heavy for fast-moving military forces. "I think laptops are kind of going away a bit," says Tim Quinn, managing partner for Ascent Rugged Mobile in San Diego. "The only reason you would use a laptop now is for the keyboard. They're too expensive now compared to the tablet. Their LCD [liquid crystal display] technology is old. The only reason you would use it is for a keyboard."

Warfighters need to access information quickly, which tablet computer and smartphone technology offer at a lower cost than laptops. Processing power is not as important at the tactical edge as is the ability to access and process data. The ability to provide an infantryman with a portable device he already understands, such as a touch-screen tablet or smartphone, is more important than the advantage in processing power that laptops bring.

Rugged tablets and smartphones

With the popularity of tablets in the consumer market, tablet technology has advanced at a rapid pace in the military. Tablets have several uses for defense and aerospace customers, especially where tablet users can dock the device and use it to view information from another system while adding touch-screen capabilities. For maintenance, tablets can plug into a vehicle and read system information, while running programs. The user then can carry the tablet to another vehicle and use it the same way.

Tablets also are useful for those who require more processing power and a larger screen size, but still need to stay mobile. "More of the leadership folks would have tablets because they need more real estate to do data," says Quinn. "They usually aren't out tactically alone; they have a place to set it."

Smartphones in the military often function as tablets, but with additional means of communications. Rugged smartphones not only can use the same applications as a tablet, but they also can communicate with carrier networks and satellites, while a rugged tablet often will communicate only with wireless networks.

Rugged smartphones also provide cost savings when compared to tablets. "In the military, what's going on is they're looking to do more with less," says Quinn. "It's a phone and computer all in one. It's a cost reduction and it's multi-functional." By combining a computing device and a communications device, the military can save money while still offering the functionality warfighters need.

The ARM-SP4-H rugged smartphone by Ascent Rugged Mobile has an NSA Suite-B cryptographic core for secure data.
The ARM-SP4-H rugged smartphone by Ascent Rugged Mobile has an NSA Suite-B cryptographic core for secure data.


Rugged tablets and smartphones function in a variety of ways, but their main purpose is for command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR). To do this, tablets and smartphones must use specially designed applications for data sharing and acquisition. "There are a variety of communications applications to transmit battlefield command and control information, even as a front-end to tools," says Robert Rohonczy, marketing manager at General Dynamics Canada in Ottawa.

Tablets and smartphones can display less complicated versions of applications in vehicles or command centers. "Really what happens is the full applications you might have in a command center or high-value vehicle, there's a subset of those that exist on the smartphones," explains General Dynamics' Rohonczy. "A simplified interface and a subset of the data are synchronized as re- quired. In application complexity, it's like looking at an Android phone as compared to a PC. The maps will be simpler; they may show fewer elements on the battlefield."

These simplified programs enable war-fighters operating at the tactical edge to receive the same information commanders have access to, but without unnecessary details or distractions. Infantrymen then can act on the subset of data they receive without concerning themselves with sorting through information that is not relevant to their mission.

"The shooter-level guy will now have a way to view data, where in the past all he had was a tactical radio," says Quinn. "These devices can include blue force tracking information, receive video feeds from UAVs and UGVs, and they can take in video or photos and send them from their location."

The ability to send and receive data helps rugged smartphones and tablets enable warfighters to act as network nodes, which can help provide a clear picture of the operating theater to everyone on the network.

Enabling technology

Rugged tablet and smartphone technology in the military is a recent trend. "You're really looking at a phenomenon that has become pervasive in the past five years," says Rohonczy. "We've been looking at soldier systems for the past five decades or more, but they've been more along the lines of traditional computers. With the onset of consumer tablets, there has been a great pull for solutions in the tablet and smartphone space."

The reason for the sudden shift away from traditional computers, such as laptops and desktops, is that tablet and smartphone technology has begun seeing rapid improvement. "There are two major factors: the advancement in processing power, the new processors that are at 1.6 GHz and higher that can go into small device like smartphones, as well as the advent of the android operating system," explains Quinn.

In addition, the Android operating system is inexpensive enough for widely distributed tablets and smartphones. "The cost of ownership of Android is low," says Quinn. "It is along the lines of Linux, and it is a derivative of Linux. It's a fairly open society." By using a more open operating system, members of the defense industry can reduce the cost of installing it on their devices, while customizing it to their liking.

Tablet computers are portable enough for infantrymen to carry into the field to view detailed maps, send orders, view video, and share information.
Tablet computers are portable enough for infantrymen to carry into the field to view detailed maps, send orders, view video, and share information.


Military computing devices that carry, send, and receive mission-critical information call for data security, and rugged tablets and smartphones are no exception. These devices must meet certain National Security Agency (NSA) standards, and there are some security issues that are unique to rugged tablets and smartphones.

"One of the parameters is the level of security," points out Rohonczy. While handheld devices might have one level of security, those in vehicles and command posts will have another. "We need software and hardware separation of data."

The security challenge involves more than just rugged mobile computers. The networks on which these devices operate also represent security concerns. "There are emerging wireless standards, and that has been one of the big questions," says Rohonczy. "How do you make a wireless network secure?"

In addition to network and application security, hardware security, such as anti-tamper technology, needs to be used in these rugged smartphones and tablets. Anti-tamper technology, such as a hard drive that can zero itself out remotely, or completely lock a device, are used to secure these rugged portable computing systems that are taken into the theater.

The future of rugged, portable computing

"I don't think tablets will decline as much as laptops have," says Quinn. "I think it will remain fairly steady. I believe there will be a huge rise in smartphones. I think ultimately the goal is for all these soldiers to have a device like this." With the focus on empowering the individual warfighter, and the low cost of modern rugged smartphones and tablets, a cost that is continuing to drop as technology improves, the future of rugged portable computing is looking bright. While the defense industry has shown greater interest in the smaller-form-factor smartphones for the front lines, tablets will still have a place with their larger displays, better daylight readability, and higher performance.

Inexpensive, small-form-factor, rugged computers experience rise in popularity

Rugged stand-alone computer boxes that do not need separate monitors and keyboards are becoming increasingly popular in military applications. These rugged systems are being designed into applications that need small size, weight, and power consumption, yet that require some input/output (I/O) options, such as unmanned vehicles.

"A single Intel Core i7 or Freescale QorIQ processor is often plenty of processing power for certain unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) or unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) applications," says Jeff Porter principal engineer for Extreme Engineering Solutions (X-ES) in Middleton, Wis. "So there may be no need to support larger system architectures that will weigh down and take up unnecessary space in whatever vehicle you have."

Small rugged computers can take advantage of powerful processing, yet without all the overhead involved with using larger systems. "Using larger and bulkier modules in a small system requiring a single processor and some I/O is inefficient on many levels," Porter explains.

Much of the growing popularity of small-form-factor, rugged, stand-alone computers comes from a new generation of COM Express modules-which are small single-board computers that lend themselves particularly well to small, rugged embedded computers.

COM Express defines how to create integrated computer modules that can be plugged into application-specific carriers as a single block.
COM Express defines how to create integrated computer modules that can be plugged into application-specific carriers as a single block.

"I think something that has changed the way people can approach it is the modules," says R.J. McLaren, product manager for the Kontron Military Products Business Unit in Poway, Calif. "COM Express modules have really helped. You can design a small base board that allows you to have all the I/O breakout that you need for that particular application. I think the COM Express module approach and the sizes offered for that standard have helped designers provide small-form-factor, stand-alone boxes for this."

Another advantage of rugged, stand-alone computers is their versatility. These systems offer many different types of I/O, such as Gigabit Ethernet and common I/O, says McLaren. "Specialized interfaces can be added depending on the application that they're putting these into."

Rugged, stand-alone computers often are designed from commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) products to keep costs down, which causes some problems. "We are not designing brand-new proprietary equipment for every customer," says Porter. "Instead, we are using off-the-shelf modules which reduces development time, cost, and risk. One of the biggest difficulties we've overcome in doing this is coming up with a way to package these off-the-shelf modules so tightly, and in a manner they can be efficiently cooled."

Cooling is a major issue for rugged, stand-alone computers, as they need to be packed into space-constrained systems and produce a large amount of heat. Due to their small form factor, adding a fan or some other form of active cooling is not always possible. System designers have been tackling the problem in different ways. "What we've done," says Porter, "is take that thermal limiting component, the processor, and mount it directly onto the cooling interface of the chassis."

New standards are being drafted for small-form-factor systems. The VITA standards group in Fountain Hills, Ariz., is working on formulating three separate small-form-factor embedded computing standards. The companies spearheading these three efforts are PCI Systems Inc. in Sunnyvale, Calif.; Themis Computer in Fremont, Calif.; and Curtiss-Wright Controls Defense Solutions with help from partner Mercury Systems in Chelmsford, Mass.

The Kontron Cobalt rugged computer is available with a selection of processor, storage, power, and interface options.
The Kontron Cobalt rugged computer is available with a selection of processor, storage, power, and interface options.

The first of these standards in progress is called VITA 73, which focuses on PCI Systems. "I think a small-form-factor standard like VITA 73 must be totally different from what's out there, but that has the processing power to compete with 3U VPX," says Claus Gross, president of PCI Systems. "We want to build on a small form factor like a COM Express, but to make a system that fits into a small box with backplane, and also that is available as a mezzanine card." Gross adds that the size of VITA 73 embedded computing modules will be roughly the size of a 2.5-inch hard drive.

The idea behind VITA 73 is to create modules that are smaller overall, but that actually have more space for components on board, than 3U VPX, Gross says. The VITA 73-double design achieves just this, Gross says. It has two connectors and innovative cooling in a design that can stand alone in a system design or in tandem with other cards in a backplane databus architecture.

As part of the VITA 73 effort, PCI Systems engineers are working on small connectors with optical links to join VITA 73-based boxes over optical fiber running at speeds as fast as 100-gigabit Ethernet, Gross says.

The company also is working on VITA 73 backplane architectures that accommodate from three to 14 computer boards. The enclosures for these systems will be able to dissipate more than 240 watts of heat, "which is a lot for a small-form-factor system, or even for a 3U system," Gross says.

The next VITA small-form-factor standard in the works is VITA 74, and its primary architect is Themis Computer. Of the three VITA small-form-factor standards, VITA 74 is perhaps the furthest along, and Themis engineers are working with other embedded computing and peripheral companies to build an industry infrastructure and ecosystem to support it, says Bill Ripley, director of business development at Themis for tactical systems.

Themis designers are basing VITA 74 on the Nano ETX Express form factor, which came out of COM Express standard and is about the size of a credit card.

The VITA 74 single-board computer can fit in a one-module enclosure that Themis calls the Nano Pack, which is being designed into smart displays and similar applications, as well as in several other formats. Themis has demonstrated a cube-sized package with four VITA 74 boards, and is working on a 10-slot VITA 74 chassis, Ripley says.

Themis is working together with MILCOTS LLC of Monsey, N.Y., to develop a two-slot display that combines computer and graphics processing to create a small digital video recorder. Themis also is working with VectorNav Technologies LLC in Richardson, Texas, to build a VITA 74 system that combines computer processing with GPS and inertial navigation capability.

The third VITA small-form-factor standard in development, VITA 75, and is the primary responsibility of Curtiss-Wright and partner Mercury Systems. The VITA 75 takes a fundamentally different approach from VITA 73 and VITA 74, in that Curtiss-Wright and Mercury are concentrating on a standard enclosure, connectors, and I/O, rather on separate computer modules.

Still, these attempts at small-form-factor industry standards may be running into the reality of the market. "A significant problem with the new small-form-factor system draft standards is they are attempting to create new module standards from scratch," explains Porter.

"VPX was able to utilize a common packaging infrastructure with legacy CompactPCI and VME systems, as well as leverage the vast PMC and emerging XMC markets which have a wide ranging customer base," Porter says. "Neither of these advantages are being pursued by the new small-form-factor system draft specifications. Also, because of thermal constraints, these new small-form-factor system specifications are limiting processor selection to Intel Atoms and lower-end Freescale QorIQs."

While rugged, stand-alone computer standardization is currently in a state of limbo, the demand for these machines has been steadily increasing. "Demand is going up," says McLaren. "As we go to a more network-centric world, not just in military, but in all places, you need to have more of these intelligent small solutions out at the edge."

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August 2015
Volume 26, Issue 8

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