Rapid pace of commercial technology complicates Army plans for wearable computing

Deploying wearable computers that can give the infantryman quick access to battlefield radio communications, messaging, targeting, situational awareness, video, and images is a top priority for the U.S. Army, but how to achieve this goal remains an elusive and moving target.

In the not-so-distant past, Army leaders were interested in equipping every foot soldier with a wearable computer-one that would be easy to use, easy to carry, and have the kinds of features the soldiers would be excited about using.

They considered purpose-built wearable computers designed from the ground-up to be rugged and reliable. Commercial technology didn't have the heft or muscle for what warfighters needed. Today, however, the military wearable computing landscape has flipped 180 degrees. Current requirements call for commercial-grade off-the-shelf smartphones, tablet computers, and hybrid combinations of both from commercial providers like Samsung.

The shift from purpose-built rugged to commercial-grade wearable computing is leaving experts at traditional rugged computing companies feeling confused, frustrated, and shut out of current military planning.

"It looks like the military wearable computer is definitely commercial, so there is no place for us," says Rich Barrett, senior director of engineering at Elbit Systems of America based in Fort Worth, Texas.

Nett Warrior

The Army's primary program involving wearable computing today is Nett Warrior, which is fielding Samsung Galaxy Note II smartphones for evaluation to Army Rangers and soldiers in the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, N.Y. Warfighters are using these devices as chest-worn computers that display situational awareness information.

For this evaluation, the Army buys commercial-grade smartphones, wipes the memory clean, installs Nett Warrior software, and plugs the phone into the battlefield networks via the soldier-carried Rifleman software-defined radio.

This approach may bode well from a user standpoint, because many warfighters are familiar with the Android look and feel of the Galaxy Note II. The drawbacks, however, involve how potentially fragile and unreliable the phone may turn out to be under the environmental rigors of the battlefield.

Soldiers also may have a hard time with the smartphone's wired connection to the Rifleman radio. Tethering the two devices risks snagging the wire on trees, brush, and other battlefield obstacles, as well as presents a potential single point of failure if the wire or its connectors are damaged.

A problem facing Army proponents of wearable computers is a persistent disconnect between Army program officers and soldiers in the field-the ultimate end user of most envisioned wearable computing systems. Program office experts such as those at the Program Executive Office (PEO) Soldier at Fort Belvoir, Va., make a living defining requirements for soldier systems such as wearable computers, drawing up solicitations to industry, and ordering prototypes with the best capability at the most affordable price.

Satisfying customers

The problem with this system is soldiers in the field often don't like what the program offices come up with. One former Army program manager says that as much as 70 to 80 percent of program office-supervised new designs are rejected by the very soldiers they are intended to help. If warfighters don't like it, they won't use it, and there's little program offices can do about it.

Sometimes it can be a vicious cycle: Program offices set requirements and companies respond to them, only to have soldiers in the field turn thumbs-down on them. It's a difficult problem, and frustrating for the Army and industry alike.

It is this kind of conflict between program offices and end-users that the Army's semi-annual Network Integration Evaluation (NIE) experiments are designed to resolve. Still, these exercises happen only every other year, and commercial handheld computer technology moves much faster than that. It is this quick pace of commercial wearable computer technology that could continue to undermine Army plans for wearable computing before these plans can gain significant traction.

If Army leaders insist on tapping into commercially developed technology, they have to keep pace with commercial industry, and traditionally the Army's procurement structure is not good at this.


COMPANY INFO

Argon Corp.

www.argoncorp.com
Azonix Corp.
www.axonix.com
Black Diamond Advanced Technology
www.bdatech.com
Crystal Group Inc.
www.crystalrugged.com
DRS Tactical Systems
www.drs-ts.com
Elbit systems of America LLC
www.elbitsystems-us.com
Eurotech
www.eurotech-inc.com
Getac
www.getac.com
Handheld USA Inc
www.handheldgroup.com
Honeywell Scanning and Mobility
www.honeywellaidc.com
InHand Electronics Inc.
www.inhand.com
L-3 Ruggedized Command & Control Solutions
www2.l-3com.com/rcc
MicroVision Inc.
www.microvision.com
Motorola Solutions
www.motorolasolutions.com
Panasonic Solutions Co.
www.panasonic.com/business/toughbook
Peratech Ltd.
www.eleksen.com
PFU Systems Inc.
www.pfusystems.com
Quantum3D
www.quantum3d.com
Raytheon Technical Services Company LLC
www.raytheon.com/businesses/rts
Secure Communication Systems Inc.
www.securecomm.com
Stealth Computer
www.stealth.com
Trimble
www.trimble.com
Two Technologies Inc.
www.2t.com



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