Army marches smart phones, apps to the battlefield

Unified program putting emerging tech in soldiers hands would evolve as technologies change

The Army wants a few good smart phones. It also wants tablet computers and any other handheld electronics that can help soldiers perform with more efficiency on and off the battlefield.

In the past year, the Army has made a major push to issue smart phones and apps to troops. The service has launched several efforts, including Apps for the Army, which provides a place where soldiers can submit and use applications they’ve developed.

A unified program to select, issue and manage handheld electronics for the service is still forming. Its ultimate shape will be determined by programs such as Connecting Soldiers to Digital Applications (CSDA), whose primary goal is to put handheld electronics rapidly into the hands of warfighters.

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Getting hardware onto the battlefield is not the only aim of the program, managed by the Brigade Modernization Command (BMC) at Fort Bliss, Texas. Because commercial technologies evolve so quickly, the Army does not want to be locked into a single device. Another requirement is the ability to move data from device to device. An infrastructure must in place to implement and manage devices, software and applications.

“We need to make sure that we do this systematically,” said Michael McCarthy, operations director at BMC’s Mission Command Complex. “So we look at hardware, software, back-end servers and the processors that are needed, the applications, the transport layer as well as logistics and sustainment.”
CSDA is not a program of record with formalized budget lines and acquisition strategies, but its status as a pilot project provides its leaders with the flexibility to look at different platforms and systems. “What we are trying to do is the research and analysis so that when the Army is ready to move it to a program of record we can provide them with an informed recommendation on a course of action,” McCarthy said.

Devices and desires 

CSDA acquires devices and applications from a variety of sources. In July 2010, the program hosted a technology rodeo at Fort Bliss in which vendors were invited to show off their equipment. Besides contacting commercial vendors, the program staff also sent feelers throughout the Army to find programs working on useful technologies.

Last year, CSDA was asked to find ways to restructure how soldiers access knowledge and training content, in garrison and in theater.  However, the overriding goal throughout was to discover new and unique methods and technologies to help warfighters, McCarthy said.

The process began with smart phones and moved to tablet computers and book readers and onto peripheral devices, such as micro-fuel cells to power handheld electronics.

CSDA is looking at technologies such as a handheld device that uses a carbon fiber disk the size of a quarter. The disk can store 2G of data and its small reader plugs into a smart phone with a standard cable. This could allow soldiers to store maps and other data, such as orders and manuals.

If the technology becomes available commercially, soldiers would have the added benefit of watching movies on the same devices when they are off duty. “We are always looking for the next bright idea,” he said.

Another device under consideration is a small commercially available projector that is roughly the size of a pack of cigarettes and can attach to a smart phone. It is capable of projecting a movie or image on a space the size of a 52-inch TV monitor. Such a device is useful in a command center or when meeting with a tribal chief in Afghanistan, McCarthy said.

Another technology is an augmented reality application called Soldier Eye, designed to provide soldiers with tactical data. Using it, a soldier could scan a terrain feature such as a hill with a smart phone’s camera and the phone’s screen will display icons indicating the location of friendly and enemy units. Soldier Eye uses the phone's cameras as sensors to link to battlefield data networks to collect information. The application not only provides the location of other units but also registers the solder’s distance from those forces, McCarthy said.

Transport layers

Besides looking at hardware and applications, the program is also examining the types of transport layers needed to support mobile communications networks. At exercises at the White Sands Missile Range in June and July, CSDA tested 3G and 4G cellular technologies, including an adaptive radio system by xG Technology. The xG system scans radio bandwidth and transmits packets in unused pieces of spectrum. Besides saving bandwidth, such a system would be very difficult to jam, McCarthy said.

Because the main goal of the program is to empower soldiers, the program staff quizzed troops about what they want in a handheld device. One of the most important features was a numeric keypad in a format that could be pulled out of the device and retracted when not in use. Some devices, such as iPhones, were also very popular, but the overriding necessity was military utility, McCarthy said.

McCarthy said it’s possible that soldiers would be issued a variety of different devices, depending on their rank and mission. One example that CSDA is looking at is the Dell Streak smart phone, the latest version of which has a 7-inch touch screen. Such a device would be potentially more useful to a squad or company commander for reading or displaying maps and data to a group of people, he said.

There has been some concern that nonrugged commercial smart phones would break in the field, but so far, this has proven not to be the case. McCarthy said thousands of devices have been tested in the past 15 months by soldiers in every environment, from garrison to overseas deployments. In that time, only one phone was broken. Soldiers who have been raised with smart phones understand their utility and protect them from damage, he said.

Training with smart phones

Besides finding new electronic technologies to issue soldiers, CSDA is also looking into new and novel ways to use handheld devices. One example is classroom training. Last year, the program began issuing soldiers smart phones and iPads loaded with training materials. That led to a 10 percent increase in overall graduating scores, McCarthy said.

One of the first courses using the handheld devices was a Patriot Missile technician’s class. The 30 students in the self-paced, 12-week course had training modules in a standard video and an interactive video format loaded onto smart phones.

The class graduated two weeks early with a grade point average 14 percent higher than the norm. Thinking this was an anomaly, the course was held again and the students graduated with nearly identical results, McCarthy said.

When the program staff investigated the reasons for the success, they found that soldiers were taking the smart phones and tablet computers out of the classroom during their breaks and at night and using the interactive training material as a video game to compete against each other.

“They didn’t realize that they were training themselves at the same time,” McCarthy said.

Besides training, CSDA also looks at practical operational applications for handheld devices. In one experiment, several soldiers were given four smart phones with translation and information-gathering applications and told to go on patrol through a simulated Afghan village.

The volume of intelligence and operational data collected by the phones as the soldiers interacted with the role players in the village was remarkable, McCarthy said. More telling, he said, 10 more soldiers requested to participate in the exercise the next day.

After nearly 18 months of work, the program is now at a transition point. In the next three months, management of CSDA will be taken over by the Army’s Mission Command Center of Excellence at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The new command will provide a more formal governance structure with the goal of eventually moving CSDA to a program of record within six months to a year, McCarthy said.

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