Handheld computing transforms geospatial intell world

'There’s an app for that' becomes military slogan

The availability of powerful, lightweight portable computers is going to play a significant role in the distribution of geospatial information. Tablets and smart phones will give users in the field quick access to imagery, while applications will let these users manipulate data in a variety of ways.

On the opening day of the GEOINT 2011 Symposium in San Antonio, Texas, leading military speakers described efforts to employ these handheld computing platforms and the small programs that run on them.

“We’re doing formal beta tests for tablets, the first one starts today on aircraft,” said Letitia Long, director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) said on Oct. 17.

Tablets will be used in place of the paper maps and charts that pilots typically carry. If the tests work well, using tablets instead of paper could yield substantial savings. “It costs $20 million to publish data and ship it to air crews around the world every 28 days,” Long said.

She also noted that apps are beginning to transform military applications. One reason is that apps can be deployed in far less time than more conventional software. Long noted that NGA was working on a half dozen apps when Hurricane Irene hit the East Coast. They fit the needs of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), so NGA put them into use. Their usage prompted the development of additional programs.

“We developed more apps for FEMA while the first programs were being used by their people,” Long said.

On the trade show floor, Raytheon unveiled its Appsmart portal, which gives government customers access to secure defense, intelligence, and first responder apps. Apps from Raytheon and third-party suppliers are also available on the site, addressing issues for situational awareness, buddy tracking, triage tracking and language translation, among other capabilities. Raytheon will screen apps for "malicious" code and viruses.

NGA has a similar repository that it calls the gas station. “We’ve got about 100 apps there now,” Long said. “Some of them are ready for use by analysts, others are in the early stages of R&D.”

The availability of specialized apps that can be run on compact handheld computers meshes well with the DOD’s overall efforts to put more capabilities in the hands of warfighters in the field. When data is available in the field at near real time, warfighters can use apps that fit their situation to pull out the data they need.

“The geospatial intelligence community has taken the lead in the efforts to put data in the hands of the users,” said James Clapper, director of national intelligence. “That lets users manipulate thee data to their heart’s content.”

About the Author

Terry Costlow is a contributing writer for Defense Systems.

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