COTS or military: sometimes it’s hard to tell

It’s getting increasingly difficult these days to tell the real difference between commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components, and those purpose-built for military use.

Aug 1st, 2008

John Keller, Editor in Chief

It’s getting increasingly difficult these days to tell the real difference between commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components, and those purpose-built for military use. I think the reason for this is not that the two design approaches represent clearly different technologies, but instead that the two are simply opposite sides of the same coin.

Let me illustrate: is a desktop computer COTS or military technology? Pretty simple, right? The PC is commercially available, and it comes off the shelf of your neighborhood Circuit City or other computer store. Of course it’s COTS—or is it? What happens when we consider the ancestral roots of the PC, or of many other commercial products, for that matter?

The desktop PC is a general-purpose electronic computer. I think we’d all agree on that. But what about the first such device—the ENIAC, short for electronic numerical integrator and computer, which was developed during the Second World War, and was unveiled in 1946?

The ENIAC also was a general-purpose electronic computer, yet it was designed to calculate artillery firing tables for the U.S. Army Ballistic Research Laboratory. So the ENIAC—arguably a direct ancestor of the PC—began its life as a military-specific system, yet evolved into one of the most successful commercial electronic appliances in recent memory. So, is the PC COTS or military?

Let’s look at this evolution from a different perspective. What about those rugged tablet and palmtop computers that soldiers and airmen routinely carry onto the battlefield these days? These devices are purpose-built rugged for military applications, yet their innards often contain the same microprocessors and software operating systems as those COTS PCs on the shelf at Circuit City. Are these rugged battlefield computers COTS or military?

I think you can see my point. Look at most electronic technologies these days. The most successful see military and commercial applications, with some alterations to fit their specific uses and operating environments. Are these devices commercial or military? The answer is they’re neither—and they’re both. At the end of the day, it’s hardly worth quibbling about.

I thought of this a week or so ago when I visited the Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) in Newport, R.I., where scientists and engineers develop and evaluate unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) for military use (see feature on page 16 for more on UUV technology).

Now you wouldn’t think there would be a lot of COTS technology involved in such an esoteric field as UUVs, but that would be wrong. Actually there’s quite a lot, but it’s technology—like in many other applications—that has its feet in both camps, military and commercial. More interesting than that, however, is the technology that seems to flow freely back and forth between military and commercial.

NUWC engineers have developed a UUV they call MARV, which is short for midsize autonomous reconfigurable vehicle. MARV looks like a small torpedo —16 1/2 feet long and about a foot in diameter—for testing different UUV technologies and payloads. One of the things they’re using MARV for is to refine ways of remotely operating the UUV for precise and delicate tasks like docking with surface ships or with other UUVs.

“We want to be able to ‘fly’ the UUVs manually, occasionally for docking and similar tasks,” says Christopher Egan, UUV customer advocate at NUWC. “We want to be able to manipulate the UUVs to guide them back onto submarines” and other vessels, he says.

To do that, they needed a joystick-type of interface, similar to those used in computer games. Why? Because most of the recruits going into the Navy these days already are experts at using joysticks in computer games. “The ‘Xbox skills’ the kids today have are right in the skill set we need,” Egan says. “10 years ago, asking a sailor to do something like that would have been unthinkable.”

NUWC experts have designed a special joystick for manipulating MARV and other UUVs, which is based on commercially available technology but is altered for a military-specific application. This joystick relies not only on commercial technology, but also on human skills developed as a result of widespread commercial technology.

Is this joystick military or commercial? The way I look at it, the device works, it doesn’t cost too much, and the Navy was able to develop it quickly. Who cares if it’s commercial or military?

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