Tactical apps arrive on Androids in Afghanistan
Soldiers in Afghanistan can now do something no soldiers before them could do — view digital maps while on patrol, establish their routes on the go and collect information digitally for use back on a base.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency developed the maps and some 50 other applications under its Transformative Apps, or TransApps, program. Soldiers get the apps on rugged Android devices protected by a hardened Linux kernel and the devices communicate via secure military radios. It’s the first time soldiers in any war have had this capability, according to the American Forces Press Service.
TransApps, which was launched in 2010, is intended to produce a set of military applications that work like smartphone apps, can be developed quickly with feedback from soldiers, and made available through a streamlined system that avoids the usual delays in the acquisition process. The idea was to “see if it would be feasible to leverage these commercial products to address the enduring situational awareness capability gap” in the battlefield, Doran Michels, TransApps’ program manager, said during a recent teleconference with reporters.
The development team began working with an infantry unit in 2011. The first thing soldiers said they wanted were interactive, high-res maps that they could access in the field. “Once we had done that, the next thing they wanted was to be able to interact with the maps in a more complex way,” Michels said. “We saw that the handhelds made great collection platforms during their mission, and … they wanted to be able to recompile critical elements of the mission and get those back into the system so other people could benefit.” The current map application lets soldiers layer data of their choosing onto high-resolution maps stored on the mobile devices.
The concept may reflect the development and distribution of commercial smartphone apps, but the DARPA team faced some significant differences in dealing with the battlefield — particularly with regard to security and the means of communications. The hardened Linux kernel provides a level of security you won’t see on an everyday device, and the Android devices being used in Afghanistan also have data-at-rest and data-in-transit protection that supports the layers of the mobile security stack, along with authentication requirements and app-vetting controls, according to DARPA.
Communicating via military radios not only is more secure, but it also accounts for cellular or Wi-Fi networks being absent, or at best patchy, on the battlefield. And since high-res maps can’t be quickly downloaded in that environment, they are loaded onto the devices ahead of time.
Since the start of the program, the team has now developed a suite of apps that are available via an internal app marketplace, and Android devices have been distributed to all 3,000 Army personnel in Afghanistan.
The Army started moving toward Android several years ago, in part because its open architecture would allow for modifications and that researchers had developed a secure kernel for the operating system.
Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.