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Dismounted Soldier – using rugged handheld computers

Soldier Modernisation talks to Simon Walker, Business Development at tpgroup, about their rugged computer products and how they fit into existing systems

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Rugged computers and servers

Q: One of the major questions that military systems managers ask is, how does the deployment of dismounted rugged hardware help optimise the modern battlespace?

A: With a major modern focus on Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR), especially as a result of the increase in asymmetric warfare and counter-insurgency type operations, there is a growing requirement for real-time tactical and communications data to support military operations.

Fundamentally, there are two essential problems which rugged handheld devices are designed to address supporting the purpose of C4ISR – ‘time’ and ‘deployment’.

Time, or perhaps better militarily expressed as ‘tempo’, is about ‘getting ahead’ of your adversary’s ‘thinking cycle’. As in chess, you want to be not only thinking of the opponent’s next likely moves, but heading them off before they arrive.

Success is about observing the tactical situation around you, realising how this affects your options to react to the situation on the ground, deciding how to react to changes and devise military plans, and preparing orders to do so, before communicating those plans and orders, and observing the situational changes to see the military affect - ideally all in real-time.

Since your opponent is thinking along the same lines, the trick is to run this constant ‘decision-cycle’ faster than your adversary. An adversary who, as is typical in insurgency operations, is using cheap and freely available social-media apps on an Android mobile phone across the local in-country cell-net phone network as they merge into the crowd.

Developing and improving this ‘tempo’ requires complex tools and applications which allow the observers to work efficiently. They do this by making use of mapping, imagery, incoming video and other real-time sensory feeds, and instantly distributing that information to the soldiers that need it, right across the battlespace.

Realising the significance of the incoming information requires a means to display that information in a way in which it can be easily presented, digested, and made use of. This often involves ‘fusing’ or ‘filtering’ different data sources together to present useful accurate, aggregated information.

This requires not only having the best available digital mapping of operations, but also the ability to overlay the supplied intelligence over that map, thus enabling the next decision-cycle tactical choices. Decisions which are themselves often complex, and require capable software-based ‘decision support tools’ to assist the intelligence-based decision-maker to make the right decision, at the right time. Then to communicate it instantly to drive forward the all essential operational tempo.

Rugged computers and servers

Q: Deployment in the field and where the demand for rugged hand-held devices is most critical, is another area of question?

A: Our friendly forces cannot always rely upon the local mobile phone infrastructure being secure enough to manage their operations. In modern warfare, a digital C4ISR system requires data-management, toolset and networking technologies and communications to flow between the front-line soldier and the formation command behind, incorporating the various layers of headquarters in-between.

It is at the dismounted front-line, typically the harshest and most hostile operating environment of the battlespace, where sensors are deployed and their data is fed up the chain of command to drive a combined operational picture, allowing for orders to be fed instantly back down to the front-line.

It is in these fast-paced, front-line environments that the demand for rugged hand-held computers is most required. That isn’t to say that rugged hardware is not required all along the levels of command, but the larger the headquarters, the greater the rate of tactical data collection, absorption, processing and dissemination, and invariably the larger the rugged hardware system required to manage it.

It is at the dismounted tactical front-line, where soldiers are required to operate and fight in only what they can carry, that the demand for smaller, lighter, more capable and more robust rugged handheld devices is demanded. The challenge is to be able to provide those soldiers with, reliable, rugged, usable hardware which not only meets the data needs of the C4ISR battlespace, but allows them ‘wear it’ whilst operating and fighting to their optimum.

Q: Who is using them?

A: The demands on dismounted rugged hardware are varied across the battlespace. Whilst the typical infantry soldier is a likely candidate for small-form factor rugged handheld devices, their need to receive and transmit tactical data is largely limited to relatively straight-forward mapping, orders and communications, excepting in some ‘special’ cases.

More likely, it is soldier ‘tradesmen’ dealing with complex data requirements in logistics, equipment support and maintenance, artillery, communications, aviation and special reconnaissance operations that are more likely to not only have the need for complex data to support their roles, but are also acting as a source of valuable battlefield data to feed the battlespace ‘bigger picture’.

In ‘special cases’, sometimes the only way to derive the essential intelligence that is required is to insert soldiers at or even beyond the front-line, kitted with man-portable special sensors and communications hardware, with supportive specialist digital tools and sensors processed on Small Form Factor rugged hardware, to manage the complex data processing and communications demanded of their crucial role.

Q: What problems are they designed to overcome and how are they overcoming these problems?

A: We have explained the need to have digital data and communications from the forward edge of battle right back into the formation command. Whatever harsh and hostile environment the rugged hardware is deployed into, be it desert, tundra or jungle, the purpose essentially is to improve the battle operational ‘tempo’ to allow tactical decisions to be more timely and accurate to defeat the opposition.

Q: So what does ‘rugged’ actually mean in terms of computer hardware and what do we mean by ‘handheld’?

A: In normal daily life, most people’s mobile phones would be referred to as ‘handheld’. Add to that mobile tablets and other computerised ‘personal organisers’, and we have just about captured the definition of ‘handheld’ hardware devices as we know them. All are small, lightweight, have limited battery power, use mobile and /or wi-fi communications, are powerful in processing and memory terms (when compared to the Apollo Lunar lander computer which had only 2kb of RAM), and are fully loaded with a plethora of high-performance applications to manage and entertain our daily lives.

However mobile these devices are, they wouldn’t typically be regarded as rugged, and despite the accessory of a thick plastic ‘robust’ case, they couldn’t be expected to last long in the battlespace. Whilst the design of rugged equipment is highly complex, in simple terms, producing rugged hardware means meeting some key design criteria.

Firstly the hardware must be robust enough for the operational environment it is designed for. It must be able to withstand a wide range of expected and unexpected conditions. It must not present a hazard to human health or operational conditions, and it must not fail in extreme environmental conditions (e.g. rain).

Of course this very simplistic explanation does not even scratch the surface of the complexities of making a piece of hardware operate happily in the desert on one hand and the Arctic on the other – yet that is the lot of the rugged hardware designer.

Overcoming the issues posed by the harsh and hostile environments in which rugged hardware devices, handheld or other, are expected to operate, is multi-faceted and technically challenging. The more modern recent advances in the miniaturisation of computer hardware components have allowed the devices we use to become smaller. More importantly, it has become viable to reduce a rugged handheld device to a size and weight which is now acceptable in the battlespace.

Key challenges for the dismounted hardware designer fundamentally revolve around the capability of the hardware to deliver a useful output versus the ‘wearability’ of the device, enabling the soldier to operate without hindrance.

Alongside the plight to provide high-powered processing power, data storage, and communication capabilities in the smallest footprint possible, lightweight alloys are utilised to reduce weight and provide rigidity in the device chassis enclosure for mobile rugged use.

This allows the device to withstand shock and vibration, and to be operated in wide temperature ranges of typically -20°C to +55°C, so as to meet common military environmental standards of ruggedness certification such as MIL-STD 810G. Add to that the use of water-proof connectors and seals, and rugged devices can be made not only dust tight but also able to withstand water ingress.

The growing utilisation of Lithium-Ion batteries, typically the same technology used in commercial mobile phones, offers many hours of use to the dismounted operator, meaning the user is no longer dependent upon a mains power source to operate and can be truly mobile for extended periods.

However, this is of no consequence if the hardware is impossible for the soldier to carry and use on the job – the same soldier who must not only transport tactical and personal equipment, but still operate as fighting soldier. Improvements in rugged hardware must also be matched by its ‘wearability’ and the need to integrate the kit into the soldier’s uniform and other common warfighting equipment.

Modern trends in light-weight padded materials have allowed for modular, light-weight load-carrying equipment solutions for back-pack and webbing systems. These come with the provision of flaps, loops and other specific fixing attachments to allow for the accommodation of incorporated handheld rugged hardware pouches and sacks. These allow the dismounted rugged hardware to be ‘integrated’ into the soldier’s load-carrying equipment.

Indeed, increasingly modular combat system load carrying equipment is being purposely designed to allow dismounted soldiers to fully integrate their complete range of rugged hardware including optronics, radio and C4ISR communications, into a single combat clothing and load-carrying equipment solution with in-built ballistic protection.

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