Military turning to palmtop computing in a big way

Jan. 1, 2000
Yet another new networking acronym is about to descend on the U.S. military — PAN — short for personal area network. And it is the evolution of PAN that will turn the 21st Century soldier, sailor, airman, and Marine into a self-contained voice and data communications system, with instant links to the rest of his squad in the field or as high up the chain of command as may be necessary.

Military turning to palmtop computing in a big way

By J.R. Wilson

Yet another new networking acronym is about to descend on the U.S. military — PAN — short for personal area network. And it is the evolution of PAN that will turn the 21st Century soldier, sailor, airman, and Marine into a self-contained voice and data communications system, with instant links to the rest of his squad in the field or as high up the chain of command as may be necessary.

Central to this advancement is Bluetooth, a short-range, low-cost, small radio technology created by Ericsson, IBM, Intel, Nokia and Toshiba. Bluetooth will enable a helmet-mounted headset and microphone, for example, to communicate with a palmtop computer or small radio carried — or even embedded — elsewhere on a soldier`s battle fatigues. This wireless system will create the hands-free environment essential to battlefield applications.

Based on a small, high-performance integrated radio transceiver — each allocated a unique 48-bit address derived from the IEEE 802 standard — Bluetooth operates globally in the UHF unrestricted 2.45 GHz ISM "free band."

With a range of 10 meters (expandable to 100 meters with an optional amplifier), Bluetooth has a gross data rate of 1 megabit per second, although there are plans to double that in the second-generation version.

One-to-one connections enable a maximum data transfer rate of 721 kilobits per second on three voice channels, using a packet-switching protocol based on a frequency hop scheme with 1,600 hops per second to enable high performance in noisy radio environments. The system uses the entire available frequency spectrum with 79 hops of 1-Mhz bandwidth, analogous to the IEEE 802.11 standard. The system draws only 0.3 milliamps of power in standby mode and 30 milliamps at maximum power during data transfer.

A device equipped with a Bluetooth radio establishes instant connection to another Bluetooth radio as soon as it comes into range. Since Bluetooth supports point-to-point and point-to-multipoint connections, several piconets can be established and linked together. This creates a topology best described as a multiple piconet structure. To go beyond that localized capability, however, will require another communications interface.

"We`re looking at a convergence of the cellphone and PDA [Personal Digital Assistant] — a device that can be carried and supplies two critical items: Situational awareness and messaging," says Maj. James Cummiskey, mobile computing project officer for the U.S. Marine Corps Tactical Systems Support Activity at Camp Pendleton, Calif.

Wireless mobile networks

With everyone on the battlefield wearing a PAN that can interoperate with other PANs to form a wireless, mobile, local area network (LAN), no infantryman — or downed pilot — would ever be lost or out of contact with friendly forces. The key to that is communication, receiving and transmitting, for which there is about a ten-fold difference in power requirements. But to be truly useful, the system must have sufficient bandwidth to handle real-time imagery — and small, lightweight, rugged handheld units that can display that imagery in color in any kind of light.

"Broadband, ubiquitous wireless data will be the enabling technology that will make mobile computing the next big thing — the fourth generation of computing," Cummiskey says. "But we can`t get there until all the extraordinarily fragmented wireless systems out there are condensed into a single infrastructure that can be used anywhere. The software is here and the hardware devices are coming along, but the communications pipes have a long way to go; that`s the weak link, by far."

In Urban Warrior, a recent training exercise that put Marines into the worst possible battle environment — city streets and buildings — the access point for communications was in the sky. It was to demonstrate the value of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or other aircraft directly overhead, thus overcoming some of the blockage common to "urban canyons" between buildings. While this technology is still in its infancy, commercially and militarily, the user community already is looking down the road to what is next.

"What excites us is voice control, which we think is the future in the next five to six years, to empower the user to get output without having to look at a computer screen instead of watching the battlefield for the enemy," Cummiskey says. "What we need is a family of different products, each oriented to solving a particular user requirement. Units primarily in vehicles aren`t concerned about battery life and can have a large screen. But the infantryman needs a small device that can fit in his pocket, can withstand the rigors of battle, and has a long power life." The Marines are considering a number of possibilities, including the Data Automated Communication Terminal (DACT) made by Tadiran [of Holon, Israel].

"DACT does two basic things: It is the situational awareness platform for the small unit leader on the battlefield, primarily the infantryman," Cummiskey continues. "Its secondary, but equally important, use is as a messaging platform, allowing us to talk to artillery, tank units, various aircraft. That is one of the real challenges, because you have all sorts of different operability standards and the DACT has to do it all."

No handheld platform to date fully fits all of the Corps` needs, he adds, which include incorporating a satellite global positioning system (GPS) capability that not only tells the individual user his precise location, but also enables him to share that information with other forces over a wireless net.

Many choices

A large part of the problem in finding just the right palmtop is the military`s growing dependence on commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) devices. This is especially true in the palmtop computing arena, where civilian economies of scale and comparatively insignificant military buys mean the Pentagon has virtually no influence over the direction of this new technology. Fortunately for the military, much of what it wants also is of interest in the wider civilian user community.

"By 2003 you probably could get everything in a single device — palmtop computing, GPS, and wireless communications," predicts Frank Varela, North American handheld products marketing manager for Compaq Computer Corp. in Houston. "This will happen, perhaps by as early as next year, as these capabilities shrink down to compact flash size. You also could easily have a video conferencing solution available on a palmtop device by 2003-04."

The compact flash card is smaller than the PC-cards common on laptops — about 1-by-1.25-by-0.25 inches — and already is being incorporated into some handhelds, either at initial production or by third parties.

"These would need to be ruggedized, which would add some cost, but the way we are trying to design our future products is to have a base product that can be modified fairly easily by third parties," Varela adds.

Palmtops must be able to operate in the field for weeks or even months without recharging or replacing batteries before they become standard warfighter gear. Lithium ion batteries are the latest tangible progress toward that goal. Officials of the 3Com Corp. Palm Computing Division in Santa Clara, Calif., claim their consumer Palm already can operate for more than a month on one charge, but as more capabilities are built into or added on to each unit, power drain will become increasingly significant.

At the same time, any future battery must be as small and lightweight as possible. That also creates a functional conflict for military users, however; they want small handhelds, but still require a display large and bright enough to show useful color maps.

The current generation of palmtops also has limited memories of two to 16 megabytes. Some memory-intensive applications, such as detailed maps, could load onto compact flashcards, which could provide access to a military intranet where users could access maps and personal e-mail.

3Com out in front

In the commercial world, 3Com holds more than two-thirds of the global market with its line of Palm handheld computers, which use a proprietary operating system. A new entrant in the field, which has licensed the Palm OS from 3Com for its new Visor handheld, is Handspring Inc. in Palo Alto, Calif., established by Palm Computing founders Jeff Hawkins and Donna Dubinsky, who left 3Com earlier this year.

Ranged against them are a host of Windows CE-based handhelds: The Jornada line from Hewlett-Packard in Cupertino, Calif.; the Aero 2100 series from Compaq; the MobilePro from NEC in Mountain View, Calif.; the Cassiopeia from Casio in Dover, N.J.; the WorkPad from IBM in Armonk, N.Y.; the Velo and Nino lines from Philips Mobile Computing Group in Campbell, Calif.; and the Wizard and SE300/500 from Sharp Electronics in Mahwah, N.J.

While battlefield applications are still in the earliest stages of investigation, handhelds already have proven their value in inspection, maintenance, and logistics. The Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) in Arlington, Va., has been testing Palm III computers with the 30 or so inspectors who go over new ships delivered from the General Dynamics Bath Ironworks in Bath, Me., and plans to do the same with ships coming out of Litton`s Ingalls shipyard in Pascagoula, Mississippi.

"Initially, we felt some of our processes could gain benefit by using handheld computers to reduce some of the hand-offs inherent with the process of writing deficiencies on the products that we deliver and then prosecuting those to their conclusion," says Cmdr. John Ingram, the Navy`s shipbuilding production officer for Theater Surface Combatants.

The goal was to put the problems discovered by those inspections into a consistent, easily sorted electronic format. Until recently, inspectors recorded deficiencies on paper, then entered them into a database — often two, one Navy and one maintained by the contractor. Reconciling those into one database also was a goal of the NAVSEA effort.

Inspectors began using the Palm IIIs about six months prior to delivery of the guided missile destroyer USS O`Kane (DDG-77). Although they were working with inspectors who had been doing that job the old way their entire careers, Bath Ironworks production manager Walt Koscinski says more than 80 percent were able to get up to speed with the new system quickly.

Ingram says his inspectors also were able to standardize some of the nomenclature into a pulldown menu from which they could select whatever system had a problem. With traditional handwritten reports, information often entered the database with slight variations, making followup searches difficult.

"We are continuing to work with the ship inspectors to make the Palms inspector-friendly," Koscinski says. "We`re in the process of providing features like spellcheck. We`re also working with the shipbuilders to download the results of the inspection directly to the shipbuilder, thus reducing the amount of paperwork. We`re working toward an essentially paperless process."

Inspection tools

One such "inspector-friendly" improvement would be to use the Palms` ability to enter data as barcodes instead of by pulldown menus. The shipbuilders also say the new tools are useful in developing day-to-day worklists and tracking work that needs to be completed.

"The important aspect here is the tool. We probably could have used any one of a number of palmtop systems. In the long run, you need to look at which one gives you the best value," Ingram says. "In the Palm III, we found something that was very cost effective. But we aren`t tied to any specific platform; you go for what is best for your application. And that seems to be changing very rapidly in the industry."

Leaders of the Space & Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR) in San Diego also are looking to handhelds. They have created their own Palm Computing Division at the SPAWAR Systems Center in Charleston, S.C. division head Bucky Buchanan says he is integrating Palms into existing systems such as the Shipboard Non-tactical Automation Program (SNAP), the Navy`s primary maintenance database.

The SNAP maintenance form and all relevant technical manuals now can load onto a Palm for each maintenance technician. Each Palm can hold only the information necessary for the few systems for which each technician is responsible.

"We`ve tried to create a self-contained logistician who doesn`t have to go ask someone else or go elsewhere to check a manual or parts list," Buchanan says. "So if he knows what is broken, he will have everything he needs to know about it in his hand. If that technician moves to another part of the ship, he can go to the SNAP computer, delete his old data and download the appropriate data for his new assignment."

SPAWAR also has combined a Palm with a barcode reader to track supplies on a hospital ship. When someone takes an item from the supply room, its barcode and the barcode on the user`s ID badge scans into the Palm. The database alters accordingly. That enables the ship`s supply officer to track what has been checked out and by whom, determine what stores are depleted most rapidly, and chart timelines for usage. The same approach can apply to any supply depot.

Navy leaders say they are so impressed with the potential for handhelds that Adm. Jay Johnson, chief of naval operations (CNO), has ordered a new Palm for every new ensign coming out of the Naval Academy, officers candidate school, and NROTC, starting with the class of 2000. Johnson, who carries a Palm himself, already has approved the $1.2 million required to procure the 3,000 or so handhelds for that first class.

"If you are going to go concentric, you have to have a disposable kind of hardware. We have to be able to afford to throw it away if it gets dumped in the mud or hit by a bullet," Cummiskey says. "But our biggest problem will be security. We have to do a lot more research, not only on ruggedization, but also on how to pass classified traffic over these circuits.

"On the other hand, there is a time value of information," Cummiskey continues. "Our job as Marines is to hit the enemy as fast as possible when he`s not looking. So if we`re moving fast enough, it may not matter if the enemy can figure out where we were an hour ago. I`d rather have an 80 percent solution today than a 100 percent solution never. The commander in the field is used to operating in an environment that is filled with risk. If we can give him a commercial system that will provide the information he needs in the time he needs it with a 20 percent chance the enemy might detect and decrypt it before he can act, I`m confident he`ll take it."

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