Warfighters demand greater processing power and reliability in rugged battlefield computers

Jan. 4, 2009
 Technology focus -- Rugged computers are increasing exponentially in importance as U.S. military redefines what it means to be an infantry soldier in today's high-technology, network-centric fighting force.

name hereBy Courtney E. Howard

Information, knowledge, and communication -- all are interrelated and crucial to today's military missions and warfighters in the field. Information acquisition and conveyance are central to the U.S. Department of Defense's vision of a network-centric battlefield.

This netcentricity cannot be attained, however, without reliable PC, laptop, and notebook computers rugged enough to withstand harsh environments. Now more than ever, military end users have a wealth of rugged mobile computing options from which to select the optimal solution for their specific mission.

"Computing systems on the battlefield have become essential to mission success," says Bill Guyan, vice president of programs and strategy at DRS Tactical Systems in Melbourne, Fla. "We believe that mission critical reliability is an absolute necessity for our products." For that reason, DRS engineers and executives make an effort "to ensure that our systems will perform wherever and whenever they are needed," he explains.

To that end, company engineers invest time in understanding how a system will be used -- the environment and the concept of operations -- and to unearth any potential performance challenges that may not be explicitly stated in a requirements document. "It is no help to the warfighter if a system fails, but meets specifications," Guyan notes. "We believe that a battlefield computer like any battlefield system -- a weapon, a vehicle, a radio -- needs to be selected for its ability to perform in the worst-case scenarios."

Unique needs

Warfighters in the field have requirements, not the least of which are size, weight, and power (SWaP). "Military end users are mobile and face extreme environments, so rugged and reliable notebooks that are easy to transport in a rucksack have become essential to them," explains Jan Ruderman, vice president of government sales for Panasonic Computer Solutions Co. in Secaucus, N.J.

Weight and mobility are important to the deployed soldier, and technology firms are answering the call with rugged ultramobile PCs (UMPC) as well as lightweight, compact notebook computers. "Long battery life and daylight-readable screens are also easily overlooked factors that are critical to a military end user," Ruderman adds.

"Our customers [in ultra-rugged military applications primarily] require computer and peripheral performance that is similar to what is available in the commercial arena," says Julie Briggs, vice president of federal program development at VT Miltope in Hope Hull, Ala. "Military computer requirements will continue to closely track to commercial technology releases. Insertion of these technologies is always tempered by the trade-offs required to maintain the environmental and EME/C/I compliance to meet the operational needs of the user."

The use of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technology in rugged computers is largely encouraged by technology firms serving the mil-aero market; the use of commercial computers on the battlefield, however, is not. "Unfortunately, the pendulum sometimes swings too far in the direction of COTS solutions and lower-cost, so-called 'rugged' commercial products make their way onto the battlefield in various roles," Guyan says. "A computer designed to survive a coffee spill, or being dropped in an office, is not the kind of computer that belongs on the battlefield in a critical computing role. There is no end to the reports of 'rugged' notebooks failing in the early phase of combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. If soldiers do not have confidence in a system, they will not use it."

In the end, Ruderman says, "dependability is the most important feature of a notebook for military users, who need constant access to critical communications." Guyan agrees, noting: "Dependability is the thing that warfighters want most from their rugged computers and displays."

In-field IT system

Officials in the U.S. Army Special Operations Command have adopted Panasonic Toughbook computers for the organization's Tactical Local Area Network (TACLAN) -- a network suite of servers, printers, scanners, laptops and other electronic devices that combine to deliver an IT solution in the field. "The terminals and field devices supporting TACLAN are all Panasonic Toughbook computers, with semi-rugged desktop replacement Toughbook 52s being used as terminals and the rugged convertible tablet Toughbook 19s being used as field devices," explains Ruderman. The failure rate of TACLAN Toughbook notebooks so far has been less than one percent, he says, explaining that rugged Toughbooks meet more than 10 mil-spec requirements and withstand drops, dust, and moisture, extreme temperatures, and other harsh conditions.

Panasonic engineers continue to enhance rugged computing technology, launching the Toughbook U1 ultra-portable mobile computer. "It is Panasonic's most rugged product to date and is small enough to fit in a cargo pants pocket," Ruderman describes. "The U1 is the first computing solution to have the Intel Atom Processor, the world's smallest processor." The U1 also runs a Windows operating system and delivers up to 9 hours of battery life.

Military personnel are adopting the U1 for navigating unmanned vehicles, such as Predator unmanned aircraft, and for vehicle maintenance on "everything from Humvees to tanks to helicopters, referencing manuals and tracking parts with the unit's built-in barcode reader," Ruderman adds.

Reliably responsive

On the battlefield, it is not enough that a rugged computer simply works. Soldier systems must be responsive, work efficiently and effectively, and deliver mission-critical information instantly on demand. Warfighters require not only dependability, but also performance.

This customer set, first and foremost, is looking for performance, and performance in the battlefield environment means rugged, acknowledges Robert Davis, director of sales and marketing at Tripod Data Systems in Corvallis, Ore.

"The military customer expects software performance that is equal or better then similar consumer-level offerings," says Davis. "The warfighter expects a user interface that is modern and compatible with office systems in the back office. Light weight is also an expectation and the challenge of making something rugged as well as light, is something that our military customers expect us to meet. The ability to operate an entire day on a battery charge is important, as is the ability to field-replace the unit's battery with off-the-shelf power sources such as AA batteries."

Tripod Data Systems engineers meet these needs with the company's handheld computers, including the Nomad X series with integrated cellular communications. A COTS device, the Nomad X provides a quad-band GSM/Edge data modem that works on GSM networks worldwide. Tripod handheld computers are employed for logistics, for force protection and tracking, and as interface computers for integrated military communications systems.

A major integrator, says Davis, is using Tripod's Recon handheld computer system as a storage device for technical field manuals, used in the training of service technicians that work on armored vehicles. The company's devices are also being adopted for the Army Desktop and Mobile Computing-2 (ADMC-2) project, a $10-billion, 10-year contract that is part of the U.S Army Small Computer program.

In-vehicle computing

Today's warfighters also require vehicle-borne computing platforms for use within combat vehicles. U.S. Army and Marine Corps personnel rely on rugged computers from DRS Technologies for increased situational awareness and command-and-control capabilities in the field.

DRS Technologies' JV-5 ultra-rugged vehicle computing and display systems are being installed on more than 40 types of U.S. Army and Marine Corps wheeled and tracked vehicles at tactical operations centers and other command post platforms. DRS engineers are delivering the vehicle computing systems based on a roughly $98.3 million contract from the Army's Communications and Electronics Command, Life Cycle Management Command at Fort Monmouth, N.J., as part of the Force XXI Battle Command, Brigade, and Below (FBCB2) and Blue Force Tracking (BFT) programs.

The shared goal of the Army's FBCB2 and BFT programs is "to deliver a digital battle command-and-control information system that will provide commanders and soldiers at tactical units, from the brigade level to the individual soldier, with access to real-time information, allowing for better command and control decision making and enhanced situational awareness," says a representative. Specifically, the JV-5 computers will provide warfighters with the ability to gain global positioning system location information, to identify and track friendly and enemy combatants, to interface with terrestrial communication radios such as the single channel ground and airborne radio system, and to access a satellite communications network.

"DRS is committed to the rapid production of our JV-5 vehicle computer and display systems to meet this urgent need requirement in support of mine resistant ambush protected vehicles and other priority efforts," says Michael J. Sheehan, president of DRS' Tactical Computing strategic business unit.

The JV-5 battlefield computing system, the company's newest rugged solution, employs multicore processors, high memory and data storage capacities, and support for future technology improvements to deliver optimal graphics processing, data handling, and system networking capabilities.

The JV-5 is composed of four line-replaceable units (LRUs): the processor unit (PU), display unit (DU), rugged hard disk drive (RHDD), and rugged keyboard unit (KU). "This system provides a 1.66 GHz Dual Core processor, 2 gigabytes of RAM, and a 160-gigabyte hard drive connected to a rugged sunlight-readable 12.1-inch display with a 5-wire touch screen," explains Guyan. "Today's FBCB2/BFT users have computers in their platforms that are probably more capable than the ones that sit on their desks back in garrison."

Dismounted digitization

A need has emerged in the military for "dismountable" rugged computing systems that primarily are mounted in vehicles, but that soldiers can remove and take with them for use outside of the vehicle.

"Dismountable computers require all the ruggedness of a vehicle system (shock, vibration, temperature extremes), while also providing for the requirements of dismounted computing (sunlight readable screens, light weight, long battery life, drop and night-vision capabilities)," Guyan explains.

DRS Technologies' Military Rugged Tablet (MRT) is used as a dismountable solution by soldiers in the U.S. Air Force Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) and the U.S. Marine Corps TLDHS/Strikelink program. The MRTs "support vehicle-borne warfighters that need to have dismountable computing capability for directing CAS and other indirect fire munitions," Guyan adds. The MRT also serves as a remote munitions controller device for use by the U.S. Army's Intelligent Munitions Systems program.

Soldier-borne solutions

Wearable computers, systems worn on the body of warfighters, are increasingly being adopted in mil-aero environments. U.S. Army pilots, for example, are beginning to sport rugged computer systems designed to wrap around one leg and rest on the knee.

The Electronic Data Manager (EDM) from Secure Communication Systems in Santa Ana, Calif., is a COTS-based rugged kneeboard computing system fielded by the Army for the Project Manager Soldier Warrior (PM SWAR) Air Warrior program.

PM SWAR -- under which the Air Warrior, Ground Soldier, and Mounted Soldier programs fall -- supports the U.S. Army's soldier-as-a-system concept through the acquisition of integrated warrior systems. Electronic devices, such as the rugged EDM computing system, are intended to bring about improved tactical awareness, lethality, survivability, mobility, and sustainment.

Secure engineers worked with Raytheon and other team members on software development, EDM manufacturing, requirements definition, prototype development, hardware and software integration, and qualification testing.

"With a rugged design that weighs less than 2.5 pounds, the EDM is used as the primary cockpit display for Army Aviators on the majority of non-digitized rotor wing platforms," describes Mike Boice, vice president of sales and marketing at Secure Communication Systems. "The EDM provides situational awareness in the form of tactical moving maps and integrated Blue Force Tracking, as well as features such as checklists, landing-zone diagrams, manuals, charts, and electronic notes."

Compact and wearable computers, such as the EDM, are a trend likely to continue. "Catering to the demands of a more techno-literate generation of ground soldiers, rugged computers will sport GUIs [graphical user interfaces] mimicking those of commercially popular iPods and Blackberries," Boice predicts. "Low-power, multicore processor development will become faster and cheaper due to the popularity of commercial notebooks. Rugged handheld computers will shrink and become cheaper to deploy to ground soldiers. Situational awareness, like the kind afforded by the EDM, will be in the palm of every ground soldier's hand."

Boice also anticipates rugged computers will be called on to bridge the divide between older aircraft and ground vehicles with outmoded equipment and their newer, more-advanced counterparts. "Processor-intense 3D mapping technology will help give pilots real-time 3D maps on their rugged computers," he says. "The integration between pilot and aircraft will be seamless as wireless standards, such as UWB Bluetooth, cut the cord between human and machine."

Human-machine interface

Warfighters are not alone on the digital battlefield; rather, many soldiers benefit from unmanned or robotic accouterments. Rugged computers enable soldiers not only to control unmanned vehicles, but also to exploit the information the unmanned systems have captured with advanced sensors.

"Among the many needs we see for different types of rugged computers, an interesting and relatively set of requirements are focused on delivering computing support to sensor-based systems on small, often unmanned platforms," says Tom Roberts, product marketing manager at Mercury Computer Systems Inc. in Chelmsford, Mass. These requirements describe a generation of signal-processing computers -- powerful, rugged, and ultra-compact. More specifically, he continues, mil-aero end users increasingly require: real-time computing engines providing more than 100 billion floating point operations per second of processing power; weighing less than 10 pounds; significantly smaller than the 1/2 ATR form factor; supporting a range of I/O protocols; capable of operation in flexible, networked configurations; and rugged enough to withstand the difficult environments faced by deployed military systems.

Mercury staff engineered the company's PowerBlock 50 to deliver a "new class of rugged embedded computing capability, putting processing power next to the sensor in space-constrained platforms, such as unmanned vehicles," explains a company representative.

"The PowerBlock 50 is an integrated ultra-compact embedded computer, featuring a modular architecture using several processors," Roberts explains. "It has six slots for processing or SATA storage modules, interconnected by a high-bandwidth PCI Express switch fabric. Processing cards include P.A. Semi PA6T-1682M, PowerQUICC III, and Intel processors, and Xilinx Virtex-4 FPGAs, with a maximum processing performance of up to 172 billion floating point operations per second per system.

"This processing power is packed into an ultra-compact and lightweight package, measuring 4.1x5.3x5.8 inches and weighing less than seven pounds," Roberts continues. "The PowerBlock 50 chassis is designed throughout to isolate its internal electronics from all external environmental and physical conditions, enabling deployments in harsh environments. Rugged features include o-ring sealing for pressure, humidity, and EMI isolation, high-reliability connectors, extended temperature ranges, and locking modules for shock and vibration immunity."

Rugged embedded computers, like the PowerBlock 50, are likely the way of the future, as increasing numbers of unmanned systems are deployed alongside warfighters. "Rugged, real-time computers will definitely become smaller and lighter, while still retaining their processing power," Roberts predicts. "They will also be capable of participating in flexible, standards-based networks of sensor systems."

Exploiting unmanned systems

Lockheed Martin's Video from UAS for Interoperability Teaming Level II system (VUIT-2) is saving lives in Iraq with the help of the Thermite computer from Quantum3D in San Jose, Calif.

The Apache VUIT-2 system aids Apache aircrews in viewing streaming video gathered by a variety of fielded UAVs, including the Shadow, Raven, Hunter, Predator, Warrior A, and Reaper. Using intelligence gathered by these unmanned systems, soldiers gain greater situational awareness and targeting, which, in many cases, enables them to avoid and annihilate IED and other terrorist threats.

With the VUIT-2, warfighters no longer need to rely on radio transmissions from UAS operators who verbally describe a target or activity. Apache pilots can instantly view and assess areas of interest, as well as devise a plan for action -- all prior to coming into weapons range. In this way, the VUIT-2 is expected to increase warfighter survivability and lethality, and mission success.

Lockheed Martin, under contract with the Army Aviation Applied Technology Directorate (AATD), leads the Apache Video from Unmanned Aircraft Systems for Interoperability Teaming -- Level 2 (VUIT-2) program through September of this year.

VUIT-2, developed in less than a year, is in use by one battalion of Apache A AH-64D models, 24 aircraft. Lockheed Martin officials anticipate fielding of the system to nine Longbow Apache battalions this year.

Increased importance

"The soldier of the future will be ever more dependent on mission-critical computing," Guyan says. "Advanced programs like Future Combat Systems, Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, and Joint Battle Command -- Platform all depend on the use of computer and display systems that can work wherever soldiers go. Like boots, a helmet, and rifle, the computer is becoming an essential part of every platform -- soldier or vehicle."

Davis also sees a continued growth in the demand for rugged computers in various mil-aero environments for a wide range of applications. "Military personnel are coming from an age group that increasingly are used to gaming on portable devices, which is an excellent way to train and communicate while in the field," he says, promoting the use of small, rugged field computers as multimedia training devices for warfighters.

"The automation of the field soldier is in the early phases at this point and we can expect and technologies to be offered to this customer set," Davis adds. "These will be increasingly lighter and more durable devices and the costs will continue to come down as more COTS technologies and components are used."

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