Rugged computing for wearers of camouflage

4Makers of rugged computing systems are working to deliver the best of all worlds: rugged-designed military products that enable mission-critical reliance and reliability, while balancing it with the best technology, at a low cost with commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components, and in the shortest possible timelag behind the commercial market.


There’s some confusion within the marketplace about what exactly the term “rugged computing” means because there’s a lot of “rugged-washing” of products going on. The definition of rugged means something much different to wearers of camouflage than it does to the rest of the world.

In the case of most of DRS Technologies’ (Fort Lauderdale, Florida; www.drs.com) systems, for example, there’s a mission-critical capability to rugged computing. “In other words: it can’t fail. It must be as reliable as the tanks, the weapons, and the radios soldiers rely on,” explains Bill Guyan, vice president of business development for DRS Technologies. “It’s grown into a mission-critical aspect of how we fight. We fight in a networked way and rely on our soldiers’ ability to know where other soldiers are and their ability to track blue dots and red dots …and to fight that way.”

Soldiers depend on rugged computers to work wherever they are and whatever the conditions may be – whether it’s -40 °F or in intense desert heat, raining, snowing, and even if it suffers a hard drop and impact.

Keeping up with commercial technology

There’s a persistent need for the military to try to stay closely linked to the commercial technology roadmap so soldiers always have the latest and most rugged gear in the field and don’t get left behind. “This is challenging because commercial technology changes rapidly, and the need to keep up and spin military versions of these products shortly after the commercial versions first appear is a real trick,” Guyan says.

To accomplish this, DRS Technologies leverages long-standing relationships with suppliers of key commercial components; for example, suppliers of processor boards, hard drive suppliers, or touch-screen LCDs. “By understanding their technology roadmaps and partnering with them, we’re able to shadow their development and launch of next-generation products so that our military version comes out not long afterward,” Guyan adds. “These, by the way, use many of the same common components to provide cost benefits that come with the volumes of the commercial market.”

In a perfect world, commercial products would go straight to the battlefield. “But, given the mission-critical nature of the role they fill, we can’t risk temperature extremes, water, mud, a dropped system, or electromagnetic interference hindering or compromising a mission,” Guyan says.

COTS components: pros and cons

As commercial-off-the-shelf components are increasingly tapped for rugged computing systems, their pros and cons should be carefully considered.

“To be cost-effective today, you need to use COTS components, but the question is: How do you use them? Many in this business sell ‘rugged’ solutions by putting commercial boards into a box that’s waterproof,” Guyan says.

DRS Technologies designs products by first gaining a solid understanding of its customers’ requirements, then looks to the market to find the best technology and price point, while also considering the performance levels available for the components. Then they design from the component level up through the electronics, housings, connectors, and displays to ensure that as a system-level design it’s reliable, despite relying on commercial components. “We use an Intel processor in our computers, for example, and have a long history of delivering systems that work forever,” Guyan notes.

Rugged design isn’t so much about the processor as how the heat coming out of it is handled. What kind of a board do you put the processor on? What kind of isolation do you use in the boards and processor? How do you seal the unit? These are just a handful of aspects involved in rugged system design.

“You just can’t take off-the-shelf components and stick them into a waterproof box and call it ‘rugged’ without running into reliability problems,” Guyan says. “Our products may not typically be the least expensive, but they’re reliable and the most widely fielded by militaries around the world because of it.”

In 2013, DRS Technologies was awarded a three-year contract worth $455 million for a modular family of computers and display systems that will form the heart of next-generation network computing technology for the U.S. Army.

COTS and rugged wearable systems

Black Diamond Advanced Technology (Chandler, Arizona; www.bdatech.com), a maker of rugged wearable products whose primary application is within the joint fires realm for systems fielded alongside Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTAC), developed its newest product – the APEx Predator – to take advantage of COTS technology (Figure 1).

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Figure 1: Black Diamond Advanced Technology’s APEx Predator system uses the processor in the smartphone, tablet, laptop, or any computing device the soldier is using.

It’s similar in capability to Black Diamond Advanced Technology’s earlier Modular Tactical System (MTS), which has an integrated processor. “The APEx Predator makes use of the processor in the smartphone, tablet, or laptop, or whatever computing device you want to use,” says Michael Stimpson, vice president of Black Diamond Advanced Technology. “And it maintains the power-management features of the MTS and the peripheral data and I/O distribution.”

The APEx Predator was designed for a variety of end-user mission sets; its power requirements and computing capabilities are extremely scalable. This design enables the APEx Predator to be useful beyond C41 and JTAC missions, which makes it more appealing to assaulters.

Black Diamond Advanced Technology’s customers are “used to smartphones, which are intuitive, easy to use, and seem to do everything they could want,” Stimpson adds. “One aspect often forgotten is that a large network is required to support these smartphones. Nonetheless, customers like these commercial devices and form factor and want to be able to use it in the battlefield. This trend has been going on in the battlefield for a couple of years now, and military technology has finally reached the point where those devices can be used.”

COTS reliability is, however, a concern in the field. “The drawback with COTS devices is that they aren’t designed around the needs of the warfighter and are often not as robust as MIL-SPEC hardware,” points out Verne Patterson, who supports business development for Black Diamond Advanced Technology. “Our design approach allows the user to achieve high reliability and the capability they require for missions that can take advantage of slightly less rugged commercial tablets or phones.”

The company’s in-house-built MTS has been around for a few years and, while people “usually want the new, smaller ‘hotness,’ it’s been a 50-50 split choosing between MTS and the newer APEx Predator,” Patterson says. “Both MTS and APEx have their strengths and weaknesses and are designed to become tools in a toolbox used and configured for each mission set.”

The U.S. Air Force Battlefield Airmen Special Projects Office recently awarded Black Diamond Advanced Technology a $48.1 million five-year contract and placed an initial order for 22 APEx Predator systems.

Beating the heat

Heat is a tough design challenge the industry has been grappling with for more than 30 years. One of the biggest rugged-electronics design goals is to be passively cooled while maintaining a tolerant skin-temperature level, according to Black Diamond Advanced Technology’s Patterson. “It all comes down to knowing how much can be stuffed into a particular size box. Developers need to be able to achieve that goal without increasing power requirements,” he adds.

Although components do not tend to generate as much heat as in the past, it’s “still a design challenge to make a box operate properly in the hot desert when you have a fully sealed processor without a fan to assist with cooling,” DRS Technologies’ Guyan points out. The heat that components generate is linked to the power they use, so generating less heat means batteries are typically lasting longer in systems.

This applies to tablets as well: For its line of Toughbooks and Toughpads, Panasonic Systems Communication Co. (Newark, New Jersey; business.panasonic.com) “combines heat piping with a sealed-fan method to keep the system cool and running longer,” says James Poole, director of Department of Defense (DoD) sales for Panasonic Systems Communications. The fan is sealed to prevent dust or moisture from penetrating the device and causing a failure. Moreover, a magnesium alloy is also used to help disperse heat to prevent hotspots.

As part of its efforts to deal with heat, DRS Technologies uses LED backlights in displays now because “they’re more reliable and don’t generate heat like the old-style tubes,” explains Guyan. “But in the past, heat generated by backlights on the display helped keep the system warm in cold-weather environments. We’ve had instances of designing products with new components and found that they don’t keep enough heat inside the box to operate in colder climates. So the design challenge is sometimes inverted, and we’ve had to find ways to keep heat in the box to make it operate equally well in Alaska as it might in the deserts of the Middle East.”

Grappling with power problems

The industry continues to wrestle with power problems, partly because it’s “changed its complexion,” as Guyan puts it. “Sometimes we want to keep heat in the box because it warms components; sometimes we want to let it out so the system can continue to operate without throttling down its processor power or eventually shutting itself off,” Guyan elaborates. “It’s a tough challenge and not one that most people know how to do well. Few with any COTS products deal with that challenge at all.”

Black Diamond Advanced Technology views power-management capabilities as a key aspect of its wearable systems and factors it into designs. “Every ounce counts and carrying multiple batteries for computers, radios, GPS, and other components within the kit becomes extremely burdensome, Stimpson says.

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Figure 2: Black Diamond Advanced Technology’s Radio Power Wedge is designed to power handheld radios and VDL receivers.

“In response to this challenge, we distribute power from a single external battery to all connected peripherals on our MTS and APEx systems. Our Radio Power Wedge, which weighs only 3 ounces, powers handheld radios and VDL receivers,” he continues. “It attaches where the battery would usually go and acts as a battery eliminator by drawing power from the main system battery. If desired, the radio battery can be attached to the bottom of the Wedge for trickle charging.” (Figure 2.)

Future of tablet computing on the battlefield

As tablets become more desirable on the battlefield, one key design trend is a push toward smaller form factors.

Panasonic is currently seeing interest within the realm of military tablets “centered on Windows-based systems and operating systems, to carry over security protocols from the desktop-based world,” Poole notes. “This coincides with another trend: enhanced security, primarily in the form of encrypted hard drives.” (See Figure 3.)

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Figure 3: Panasonic’s Toughpad FZ-G1 is a thin, lightweight, rugged 10-inch Windows tablet with a 4th-gen Intel Core i5 vPro processor and a user-removable battery providing as much as 10 hours of continuous use and optional bridge battery.

With enterprise-grade tablets built for real mobility and military applications, users are demanding devices capable of withstanding six-foot drops and extreme temperatures. “Other key considerations are a removable hard drive in the event of a security issue, and ‘hot-swap’ replaceable batteries,” Poole adds.

In the future, Poole expects tablets to expand in appeal and reach, particularly once more applications are developed, in terms of user interface, touchpoints, drop-down menus, etc. “As these applications are built or migrate over to the tablet world, tablet computing will make gains in popularity, and even lighter, thinner, more rugged systems will evolve … perhaps with detachable keyboards,” he predicts.