Industry recommends rugged mobile computers over average commercial off-the-shelf devices in mission- and safety-critical applications

SPOKANE, Wa., 31 Aug. 2011. Mission-critical and safety-critical applications—from the digital battlefield to the rigors of space to the aircraft cockpit—require responsive, reliable, and more often than not, rugged computing systems. Yet, military and commercial pilots and avionics maintenance personnel are increasingly adopting commercial off-the-shelf devices, such as Apple’s iPad and iPhone. Many in the aerospace and defense community applaud the adoption of digital, rather than printed, manuals, but express concerns about the reliability, security, and longevity of common COTS handheld computers.

Aug 31st, 2011

By Courtney E. Howard

SPOKANE, Wa., 31 Aug. 2011.Mission-critical and safety-critical applications—from the digital battlefield to the rigors of space to the aircraft cockpit—require responsive, reliable, and more often than not, rugged computing systems. Yet, military and commercial pilots and avionics maintenance personnel are increasingly adopting commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) devices, such as Apple’s iPad and iPhone. Many in the aerospace and defense community applaud the adoption of digital, rather than printed, manuals, but express concerns about the reliability, security, and longevity of common COTS handheld computers.

The iPod and Google Android-based commercial systems have been making inroads at aerospace and defense organizations for years. End users, such as commercial pilots, are thrilled to replace a wealth of printed, paper documents with a sleek iPad; yet, concern over responsiveness, availability, reliability, and security is driving aerospace and defense industry firms to advocate the use of rugged, combat-proven safe, secure, and reliable operating systems and devices.

I can’t blame military personnel for wanting the same convenience and capabilities on the battlefield as they have in their personal life. Yet, at the same time, I’m certain commercial airline pilots are all too happy to relinquish nearly 40 pounds of printed operating manuals, navigation charts, reference handbooks, flight checklists, logbooks, and weather information in favor of a sleek, 1.5-pound iPad. In fact, 11,000 United and Continental airlines pilots are gaining iPads for use as electronic flight bags. However, the use of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) electronics in mission- and safety-critical applications is causing considerable concern.

If you own an iPhone or an iPad, you likely have experienced issues with regard to latency, responsiveness, and availability. And those challenges are due to running an operating system (an OS) designed for consumers, the commercial market.

Many companies offer time-tested and combat-proven operating systems that are built and verified to respond quickly, accurately, and consistently – that’s the definition of a real-time operating system or RTOS. According to Wikipedia, in fact, a key characteristic of an RTOS is its level of consistency concerning the amount of time it takes to accept and complete an application’s task. An RTOS is intended to service real-time application requests, a commercial OS is not. It is further difficult to ensure that a typical commercial OS is secure and tamperproof.

Also, what about support? If there’s a problem, who do you go to? The reseller from which the Department of Defense or the commercial airline purchased the COTS products?

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