Apps for GEOINT gain steam as mobile devices push to the edge

Flexibility and speed of applications drives adoption of handheld systems

The growing horsepower of smart phones and tablets is making them an attractive aspect of the Defense Department’s plans to make much more data available to warfighters deployed in the field. The flexibility and speed provided by smart phone apps, which can be developed quickly for very specific requirements, are critical elements fueling the drive to adopt these handheld systems.

Through the military’s branches, there’s a strong drive to establish an architecture that lets users securely share data using phones and tablets. Last December, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency began discussing its Adaptable Sensor System (ADAPT) program, asking developers to come up with apps that will help the research agency leverage sensors built on smart phone technology.

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The software will let users manage and use data gathered by ADAPT sensors. These sensors will use cameras, accelerometers and other smart phone sensors, but will often be packaged without screens or some other components to reduce their size and power demands.

While the infrastructure for both hardware and software is emerging, military leaders are pushing for rapid deployment. Even top directors are touting the capabilities of software that can be quickly developed and deployed on these handheld systems.

“Applications don’t take long to write or test,” Letitia Long, director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) said during the GEOINT 2011 Symposium held last October. “We’ve already done three instantiations of an app that identifies helicopter landing zones depending on the aircraft type.”

That speed is typified by companies such as Special Operations Apps. The startup ported one of its apps to the Apple iPhone 4S just 96 hours after Apple unveiled it in October 2011. Apps are being developed by a range of companies. Geospatial data management provider Compusult unveiled its GO Mobile app, which lets users access geospatial data and services using handheld devices.

As companies small and large come up with new apps, some organizations are moving to provide order so users will know which apps have been certified for use. That’s an important factor given the military’s need for secure software, which is particularly acute because individual smart phone and tablet users will be entering and exiting networks with far more rapidity than users with more conventional equipment.

Meanwhile, government agencies and military suppliers are establishing their version of commercial app stores for programs they have tested. The NGA provides what it calls a gas station, where users can find software for a broad range of geospatial uses. Raytheon typifies the activities of many large military suppliers, developing apps and provides a store named GOtab where users can find approved apps from a range of suppliers.

The software available in these stores meets myriad needs, so programs can have very diverse requirements. At this stage, compatibility with various types of hardware is often determined on a case-by-case basis. Some programs are written for specific operating systems such as Android or iOS, but some are designed to run on multiple platforms.

Many use standards that let users retrieve and manipulate images and share them with many users. “We use OGC-compliant data, using a range of services," said Kevin Brown, technical director for GEOINT programs at Raytheon Intelligence and Information Systems.

However, he also noted that interoperability between multiple services requires significant computing horsepower, which would make it difficult to efficiently run programs on smaller handhelds. Some apps may not require communication outside a small user base, so interoperability should be driven by end-user needs, Brown said.

About the Author

Terry Costlow is a contributing writer for Defense Systems.

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