Why smart phones might become the Army's secret weapon

Tests will show how palm devices and their apps can boost situational awareness

Smart-phone applications are part of everyday life, and the Army and other military branches have said those applications also will be a part of service life.

The next major demonstration of how handheld devices, such as Apple iPhones, Research in Motion BlackBerries and Motorola Droids, can run Army specific applications will occur in June when engineers from the Army Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC) integrate about a dozen smart devices into the Product Manager Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance On-the-Move Event 10 (E10) at Fort Dix, N.J.


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Last year’s C4ISR OTM exercise was the Army’s largest-ever C4ISR and networking technology demonstration, and this year’s exercise supports efforts to achieve brigade combat team modernization in 2013 to 2014. Handheld devices and battle command applications will be part of that future force network, and E10 will provide a firsthand look at how these different systems interact in an on-the-move environment.

“With smart, handheld devices, the Army wants to develop the capability to push down situational awareness and relevant information directly to dismounted soldiers,” said Ron Szymanski, a computer scientist at CERDEC's Command and Control Directorate. “You take a commercial handheld device like an iPhone or an Android phone and throw it in a pocket, and you don’t even know it’s there. It doesn’t slow you down. It is not like strapping a hardened laptop and everything that goes with it onto your back."

“They’re powerful enough now that they provide very similar capabilities," Szymanski said. "They last a day or two on batteries, weigh just a few ounces, and if they get broken, they don’t cost a fortune.”

CERDEC’s handheld testing and application development is strictly for commercial devices and their mobile operating systems, such as iPhone — the operating system has the same name as the phone; Android, an open-source mobile operating system; Windows Phone 7, which Microsoft developed to compete against Apple's iPhone; and Google’s Nexus One, which is based on Android.

The push to take a closer look at commercial handheld technologies came in mid-2009 when senior Army leaders, such as Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli and Chief Information Officer Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Sorenson, began to push for use of handheld devices and applications on the battlefield.

“Before handheld commercial devices entered the scene, we had either a need to supply or retrieve information that couldn’t be met or we had a large, commercially developed, expensive, dedicated device that would fill that niche,” said Steven Mazza, a computer scientist at CERDEC’s Command and Control Directorate. “The push toward handheld devices is to replace the expensive, purpose-built device with an off-the-shelf piece of technology that is significantly cheaper.”

Enterprise and Tactical Apps

CERDEC engineers have written a dozen or so Army applications for commercial devices. The applications fall into one of two broad categories. One addresses the issue of enterprise data access, which relates to training and exercises, phone directories and other resources for soldiers. The other is tactical applications, which could include, for example, a counterinsurgency application that allows individual warfighters to run their missions or patrol their routes and report back activities or people of interest to forward operating bases.

For E10, CERDEC will focus on testing tactical applications rather than enterprise applications. Two of the tactical applications being tested are named Counter Insurgency (COIN) Collector and MilSpace.

COIN Collector is an iPhone application that supports the concept that every soldier is a sensor, Szymanski said. It is a tool that can assist warfighters in collecting and analyzing intelligence information, and it supports tracking of significant activities and improvised explosive devices, he said.

The software also enables warfighters to collect data on insurgents and displays text and geospatial information. COIN Collector digitally stores much of the data that warfighters record by hand and enables them to upload that information to headquarters or retrieve other relevant information in real time instead of waiting until they return from patrol.

The MilSpace application enables warfighters to customize their computing experience and provides a universal window that lets them view multiple data feeds and services, Szymanski said. The application is written using Google Gadgets and is supported on a number of platforms, such as iPhone, Android and desktop Web browsers. MilSpace combines social networking tools and military planning aids and presents everything in a unified portal to the warfighter, he said.

In an effort to let warfighters work more efficiently, CERDEC's Command and Control Directorate is using MilSpace to present a single interface as opposed to forcing the user to interact with many data services, Szymanski said. Much like iGoogle, warfighters can customize the entire interface.

“We’re focused on getting feedback from the warfighter on the apps in real time as they execute a mission,” Szymanski said. “I’ll put the phone in front of you and drive around the track for an hour over rocks and trees and see how and if you can interact with that app while we’re bumping around. Do I need to design my apps a little better as far as the interface goes? Do I need to integrate some sort of voice recognition, for example?”

Mazza added that “E10 will give us the ability to kick the tires on these apps and make sure that we’ve thought through the human interface component.”

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