Mobile computing mounts in popularity for military field use

4Commercial computer technology continues to influence military mobile computing requirements as warfighters demand that their field equipment have the same functionality and capability as their personal devices. Consequently, rugged mobile computing is getting a major boost as the Department of Defense (DoD) pushes the defense industry to ruggedize commercial technologies for military use.

Technologies such as virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), along with (AI) and methods like deep learning, are poised to be a game-changer for military users. However, the biggest challenge is leveraging these innovations in hardware enough for field use.

“Military customers are looking for that technology that gives them the freedom to really operate anywhere, any time,” says Chris Balcik, vice president of sales/federal government, at Samsung Electronics America (Ridgefield Park, New Jersey). These customers, he says, are clamoring for technology that commercial buyers use on a daily basis. Military systems must be viable in high-density, accident-prone environments, while also leveraging the dexterity of those commercial devices that you can buy at any electronics store.

An agile warfighter who can pick up and move with the latest technology as quickly as possible is a concept resonating with the defense industry. “They are looking for laptops and tablets especially, but also ruggedized workstations and servers,” says Sara Blackmer, president at RAVE Computer (Sterling Heights, Michigan). “For example, it is important that field maintenance engineers have the compute power they need in a rugged case. What we call ‘Ready Relevant Learning’ is key. That means bringing training to the point of need instead of bringing troops to a location for classroom training.”

Mobility does not necessarily mean a dramatic change in requirements. Instead, makers of mobile technologies are staying true to the mantra of abiding to the size, weight, and power (SWaP) needs of specific applications. Initially, “the demand for SWaP-C [size, weight, power, and cost] arose because mobile platforms have become overwhelmed as more and more advanced mission and vehicle systems have been added,” explains Ed Fulmer, director of business development at IEE (Atlanta, Georgia).

Instruments and applications have proliferated so that today “Crew stations have become crowded and the vehicles’ power systems cannot keep up with demand. System integrators who buy mobile rugged computers are looking to improve SWaP-C by consolidating functions and eliminating hardware, as well as providing more ergonomic, multifunctional crew ­stations,” Fulmer adds.

“There’s a new definition of mobile that we’re seeing which is different than what we all associate with mobile,” says Chris Ciufo, chief technology officer at General Micro Systems (GMS – Rancho Cucamonga, California). Mobile doen’t always mean a laptop anymore, “because of the new near-peer threat we’re seeing on the battlefield. [Troops] need to deploy whatever asset they need to use – whether it’s electronic equipment or something else – and it doesn’t always mean something small.”

The combination of emerging threats and proliferation of instruments is pushing DoD officials to start requiring an all-in-one solution. “As these processing functions are combined, there is also an increased need to protect the integrity of computing platforms from cyberthreats,” Ciufo continues. “This means there are design constraints to minimize vulnerabilities and provide separation between connected systems to prevent propagation of a potential exploitation in one system to the next.”

Finding an all-in-one solution depends on the type of military application plus “where and how the product is being deployed,” explains Steve Travis, chief marketing director at Chassis Plans (San Diego, California). “While all the unique applications [such as maritime, tracked and wheeled vehicle, aircraft, and portable ground-based] are rugged, they each require a unique set of enhancements to help with shock, vibration, extended temperature requirements, high humidity and salt fog environments, weight and power consumption, as well as EMI [electromagnetic interference] considerations.”

Having a full rugged solution means more than having a commercial solution that is ruggedized enough for the field. Users are “also looking for a product that has a revision-controlled bill of materials, documentation in the form of user manuals, mechanical or CAD drawings, statements of volatility, mean time between failures, conflict mineral, counterfeit statements, and the like,” Travis says.

Simply put, leveraging commercial technologies into the battlefield requires much effort. “Rugged means something more than what you could buy at a consumer electronics store,” clarifies Ciufo. It’s also important to note that the mobile rugged landscape is slightly different as the industry struggles to define what mobile rugged computing means to those in the field, he adds.

“[For example] is mobile an iPhone that you put into your pocket or your briefcase or your purse or your rucksack?” Ciufo asks. “Mobile can also mean: Get me the functionality that I need onto or off the battlefield as quickly and as easily as possible. It doesn’t have to necessarily mean small, light, and low power; it can also mean something that it moves from location to location via civilian aircraft.”

The domino effect

Marrying the new technology with the agile development the military wants ends up becoming “a fine art of balancing a customers’ system requirements with their deployed environmental requirements,” Travis notes. “Knowing the hardware requirements for the software that will run on the proposed system such as CPU [central processing unit], system memory, and data-storage requirements will help us to understand in what ways we must enhance the product to meet both performance and environmental requirements.”

In addition to current set requirements, “Increasingly these days, the biggest challenges associated with rugged mobile computing is to deliver the smallest processing, lowest power, most number of consolidated systems in the smallest package,” Ciufo says.

The beauty about this scenario is that “hardware is pretty good relative to the military standards,” Balcik says. “It’s military-grade, it’s drop-tested to two meters, down to minus 32 °C. We’ve got all that covered.”

That being said, new threats will emerge and systems will need to update for the current threat, he adds. “I think the challenge we’re going to have is the operating systems – are they keeping pace with the workflow? And are the networks available to keep pace with the needs of the upload/downloads? I think that’s where we’re going to struggle for the foreseeable future.”

Ultimately, new DoD requirements for system upgrades “often start a domino effect, as one consideration leads to another,” Travis warns. “What techniques are required for a system to be properly cooled or heated, will the COTS [commercial off-the-shelf] components withstand the required shock and vibration profiles or do they require component staking, shock isolation, etc? Do internal components require further enhancements such as conformal coating? These enhancements can often add weight, additional power draw, and/or expanded external dimensions of the enclosure itself.”

In general terms, Fulmer adds, “Typical design challenges for mobile computing include effective power management or battery life, custom equipment housing designs using lightweight materials, meeting the demand for latest processors, and complying with requirements. Additionally, each mobile platform typically has unique space constraints and system interfaces, making it a challenge to have commonality across platforms. To a large extent, mobile rugged computing products have to be modular and adaptable to accommodate these unique requirements.”

The end result of this requirements lineup often means that the ultimate challenge is “to offer that fully MIL-STD-certified system at a competitive cost,” Blackmer says. “A fully enclosed case that is dust/water/shock proof is expensive compared with standard desktop solutions. Certification testing itself is also very expensive, and achieving certification as fully ruggedized requires extra effort on the part of the system integrators. Quite often, customers want the functionality and certification but their price expectations do not line up.”

DoD users are without a doubt looking for a whole life cycle solution: “We’re seeing requirements for mobile that include: ‘Get me my entire server infrastructure,’ ‘get me my large disk storage, my Intel server capability, my network patch panel, etc.’ – it all needs to go onto the battlefield, but check it in the overhead bin,” Ciufo explains.

“Today’s military requirements call for a compact footprint for smaller deployable forces,” Travis acknowledges. “Portable networks consisting of virtual servers, cross-domain solutions, storage arrays, switches, routers, UPS [], and power conditioning are becoming more commonplace.” (Figure 1.)

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Figure 1: The TFX is a rugged military-grade high performance 2U rackmount display offering either three 17.3-inch or 19-inch TFT LCD [thin-film transistor liquid crystal display
screens. Photo courtesy of Chassis Plans.]

Power and heat tradeoffs and options

As defense users get a taste of what the commercial world has to offer, the desire for feature-laden systems becomes significant, but heat management and power challenges remain for mobile computing engineers – whether servers, laptops, or networks in general.

“You cannot eliminate heat from a computer or LCD product, as it must always be transferred somewhere else,” Travis explains. “Many of our systems use forced-air cooling; the drawback is that filtration is required to keep dirt and dust from contaminating the interior, and these do require scheduled maintenance to keeping the air filter clean and unclogged. For customers that require a sealed solution, cooling options include heat pipes/sinks to help dissipate the heat over a large surface, often requiring a low power/performance component that do not generate much heat. Lastly, heat can be transferred out of a system via liquid cooling, but that will require a large radiator to help dissipate the heat out of the fluid before cycling back through the system again.”

“Among the recent technology trends relevant for our products are improved efficiencies of microprocessors and LEDs for display backlighting,” Fulmer says. “Generally, the goal is to match the unit requirements to the appropriate level of power and to size power supplies appropriately so they run at maximum efficiency.” (Figure 2.)

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Figure 2: IEE 3.5-inch handheld control display unit (CDU). Photo Courtesy of IEE.

Heat and power requirements more and more are being influenced by developments in the automotive industry. “We are starting to see more COTS components developed for automotive applications as autonomous vehicle technology begin to become more mainstream,” Travis says. “COTS component companies such as Intel, AMD, and NVIDIA are all now developing products for [such applications].” These components, designed to operate in an automobile from freezing winters in Alaska to the hottest day in Phoenix, Arizona, can and are now being used in the military market space, he adds.

COTS components enable better power efficiency and management as many are designed with this feature in mind, Travis says. “Using these, along with COTS components from the mobile (laptop and cellphone) space that are designed for reduced power to preserve battery life, a system can be configured for low-power applications depending on the customers requirements.”

Next generation of mobile rugged computing

Future rugged computing systems for the warfighter will be leveraging technology developed in the commercial world. The ruggedized tablet [will be used] for more than just data collection with the introduction of virtual and augmented realities, Balcik says. “Right now, generally, the ruggedized device is a single point. It’s an endpoint, that’s it. But we want to introduce that into a larger ecosystem.”

“We’re seeing quite a bit of interest in virtual and augmented reality,” Travis adds. “As computers and displays become more powerful, smaller and more power efficient new VR capabilities will enhance the warfighter’s ability to process and understand data in real time. From battlespace awareness and enhanced communication to improved logistical capabilities, we see many possible applications with this emerging technology.”

“Data analytics from sensors in the field or from forward operating locations is the first potential use that comes to mind,” Blackmer suggests. “The real-time application of AI and deep learning to this collected data will grow in demand.”

Ultimately, DoD users will part of a larger ecosystem: “Think about taking a ruggedized tablet into a shipyard and using the high-fidelity camera that we have, and holding it up against a section of a ship that’s being developed. Right then and there you can see an overlay in an augmented-reality fashion on what you need to do,” Balcik says.

“Being able to equip them with a ruggedized solution is one thing,” Blackmer continues. “But now, if you start introducing mixed reality, augmented reality, offering the future possibilities like visualizing the blueprints for construction sites or these antennas, it allows them to actually expedite work and they’re able to do their job at a much higher level with higher performance capabilities.”

These technologies will continue to mature. “The human-machine interface (HMI) is evolving very rapidly at present, and will be dramatically different in the five- to 10-year horizon,” Travis says. “Game-changing research can be found in battlefield augmented-reality systems (BARS), which help users maintain situational and environmental awareness. The visual presentation of key data points over an actual battlefield, mapping of mission parameters and movement, while networked with nearby soldiers, creates collaborative and immersive situational awareness. This helps to avoid costly mistakes such as interpreting color data or friend/foe movement.”

Users will also benefit from improvements in biometric technologies: “Biometric authentication – the consistent, persistent, multifactorial authentication – is going to be key,” Balcik points out (Figure 3).

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Figure 3: Samsung’s Galaxy Tab Active2 offers defense-grade security plus a fingerprint scanner for biometric authentication. Photo courtesy of Samsung.

“Mobile will be a collection of the best military and civilian technologies that are out there, with one caveat – the technology will have been appropriately hardened for use on the battlefield,” Ciufo says. “This may mean that something as simple as an Otterbox case protects the device, which provides a solid level of protection for smartphones dropped on concrete,” Ciufo says. “Hardened will also come to mean cybercapability is built into the device.”