Military use of consumer computing like iPads and Android software raise concerns for safety and security

Dec. 16, 2010
FORT KNOX, Ky., 16 Dec. 2010. Military officials are adopting commercial computing devices such as Apple's iPad tablet computer for military and aerospace applications, which is causing concern for safety, security, and reliability. Some industry players ponder whether commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) adoption has gone too far.    

FORT KNOX, Ky., 16 Dec. 2010. Military officials are adopting commercial computing devices such as Apple's iPad tablet computer for military and aerospace applications, which is causing concern for safety, security, and reliability. Some industry players ponder whether commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) adoption has gone too far, at the expense of rugged computers designed specifically to operate in the harsh operating conditions of military applications.

Officials at the U.S. Army Mission and Installation Contracting Command (MICC) Fort Knox Contracting Center at Fort Knox, Ky., issued a solicitation (W9124D10IPADS) and contract award worth roughly $500,000 for 587 computers "equal to the salient characteristics of the 32-gigabyte Apple iPad with Wi-Fi + 3G," protected by iPad Defender cases from Otterbox in Fort Collins, Colo., and two-year AppleCare Protection policies from Apple Inc. in Cupertino, Calif.

For more on rugged computers, see Rugged computers in aerospace and defense applications must work reliably in harsh operating conditions.

Additional requirements included 32 gigabytes of storage that operates on skip-free flash memory; a 9.7-inch (diagonal) LED-backlit Multi-Touch display with ISP technology; as much as 10 hours of battery life, with an 80 percent fast charge in 1.5 hours and a full charge within 3 hours; the ability to show military occupational specialty (MOS) videos; and on-demand social networking functionality.

"Everywhere we go, people are bringing up consumer slate tablets like the iPad," acknowledges Fed deGastyne, federal business development manager at rugged computer specialist Panasonic in Secaucus, N.J. "I have been in meetings where four-star generals suggest placing consumer-grade devices in large transporter aircraft, for example. There is a flood of high-level support for electronic devices coming into military and aeronautic use that likely have not passed every MIL-STD 810G test relevant to aircraft deployments. This brings up some huge concerns about ruggedness and security."

Aviators who achieve heights of up to 20,000 or 30,000 feet are concerned with altitude and thin air, rapid descent (rapid D), foreign object damage (FOD), and shock and vibration affecting mobile computers. “It’s important that computers used by airmen have passed every relevant Mil-Spec test for that type of deployment, as their lives may depend on it,” deGastyne says.

Consumer-grade computers used in mil-aero environments can cause problems, says deGastyne. “If you drop it, it breaks. If it gets hot, it shuts down.” Security is also a major concern. FBI agents are investigating an iPad-related security breach involving Apple and service provider AT&T, in which the user accounts of 114,000 users -- including military officials and politicians -- were compromised and personal information exposed.

"We are seeing the rapid use of commercial technologies for mil-aero applications," says Steve Edwards, chief technology officer at Curtiss-Wright Controls Embedded Computing (CWCEC) in Ashburn, Va. "We are starting to see more use of smartphones, iPads, and other commercial technologies in some applications. The primary reasons driving this trend are access to numerous applications and the reduced costs of these types of products, which tend to be inexpensive and disposable, meaning that when one breaks you just throw is away and get a new one."

The Defense Federal Acquisition Regulations System (DFARS), which governs contracting behavior, includes executive orders and military regulations which say that, by law, contracting officers must buy based on total life cycle cost, deGastyne explains. “Laptops are sometimes seen by procurement officers as commodities. If it’s a big-ticket item like a tank or aircraft carrier, they’re more likely to consider total lifecycle cost than with laptops.”

Industry pundits recall a time not long ago when pallets of commercial-grade laptops were dropped in war zones. “When they took those commercial laptops into theater, their fans sucked in dust and, more than anything else, the dust in the desert killed them,” deGastyne continues. “They learned that they need products that can be dropped or used in hot desert conditions and still function. The warfighters understand their lives depend upon it in some cases.

"A customer using our computer for mission planning told me about being on a C-130 at night in Afghanistan, when someone accidently kicked their Toughbook out the door," deGastyne mentions. "It went rolling out and landed in the sand. The major went flying out the door after it because the mission was on that computer and he thought they were going to have to abort; thankfully, he brushed it off, brought it back to the aircraft, and it was fine. Had that been a basic computer, the result could have been much different.”

The military is very interested in handheld devices and applications that are available in today's commercial markets, says Patrick White, vice president of strategic marketing for General Dynamics Itronix in Sunrise, Fla. "The form and function of mobile phones has changed dramatically over the past few years. These devices have evolved from simply making calls, to a highly integrated mobile device that provides many of the capabilities that were once the domain of computers.

"Today's commercial devices are simple to use, can run for days on a battery charge, have customizable applications, as well as provide real-time information like global positioning, text and messaging, even streaming video images," White continues. "The military is looking for similar devices, only rugged enough to withstand the rigors of the tactical environment."

The military market closely follows developments in the commercial electronics market. "Today's generation of soldiers and Marines are computer-savvy," points out Bill Guyan, vice president of programs and strategy at DRS Tactical Systems Inc. in Melbourne, Fla. "They are comfortable with newer technologies, such as touch-screens, advanced user interfaces, smartphones, and tablet computers. The ever-increasing capabilities of COTS hardware drive military system design. Our soldiers and their leaders want the same kind of capabilities on the battlefield that they enjoy back at home station: mobility, connectivity, ease-of-use, and continuously evolving functionality. Our job is to deliver those capabilities in a way that can be relied upon for mission-critical functions."

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