Rough and tumble20 December 2018
Rugged technology isn’t new, but what it offers those in the field changes almost daily. However, as Andrew Tunnicliffe finds out, selecting the right device is not as simple as it seems.
“The British Army has the most powerful information and communication systems available,” proclaims an article on the army’s website. “Commanders must be able to talk to their units at all times – whether it is by voice or data, satellite link or landline.” Whether you agree with the assertion the force has some of the most powerful equipment to hand, you must agree communication is key to the success of any mission, combative or humanitarian.
“Whether on the ground for warfare or training, it is important to have direct communications at all times to and from headquarters, whether in the field or in the warehouse at the material command centre. 24/7 access to everything is required,” says DT Research’s Joe Lewin.
The fact is, military personnel are often working in some of the toughest environments in the world, from the frozen waterways of the Arctic Circle to the dry, dusty, excruciatingly hot desserts of the Middle East, personnel and their equipment have to be able to cope with all extremes.
In October 2018, British personnel and their equipment faced a training exercise in some of the most challenging environmental conditions they will have faced: Exercise Saif Sareea 3, in Oman. As many as 5,500 British personnel joined 65,000 Omani servicemen in what was the UK’s biggest training drill for more than 20 years. Speaking to its Forces Network while on manoeuvres, Sergeant Michelle Louise Curran said, “It’s been different that’s for sure, but it has been a massive opportunity to be able to test my skill and ability in different environments, working with different problems, like the dust and the sand getting in the turret.” She is an armourer in the Royal Tank Regiment and therefore acutely understands the difficulties posed by the likes of sand and heat on her and her equipment’s ability to function.
Lewin says, “When soldiers are in extreme temperatures, dealing with dust, sand, moisture and vibration, it is extremely important to have reliable technology to keep communication lines open and data transfers flowing. For example, fan-based cooling for computing devices is a point of failure, as sand and dust can get trapped inside, causing a shutdown. The developments of fanless, solid-state computing, with sealable ports, which stands up to the elements and many tough work situations, with IP and MIL-STD ratings, HERO-certified, as well as sunlight-viewable screens is paramount.”
However, it’s not just about protecting the tech on the inside. What about less robust pieces of equipment? If we haven’t done so ourselves, we will undoubtedly know someone that has dropped their smartphone into water, or knocked it off a table. Often they survive, but you can’t always be sure of that before the incident. Even if they do, your trust in them to continue working as they did beforehand is compromised. That can’t be the case with military computers and tablets. They can be a lifeline between you and your unit, you and your commanders, you and your ability to be extracted when the worst case scenario becomes the one you’re in.
– Joe Lewin, DT Research
Push to the extreme
The rise of rugged technology, and in particular tablets, in the military sphere is incredible. In a recent commentary piece for Defense Systems, DT Research president Daw Tsai said, “The ability of rugged tablets to function in extreme settings is critical to their use in the military. However, these tools also enable the secure, real-time communication that’s imperative for success at the tactical, strategic and operational level. By consistently transmitting data from the field to centralised locations, then back again to individual operational units as needed, they’re an invaluable decision-making tool for facilitating action.”
Lewin went further, saying, “We have gone from jungle warfare to building warfare, which means that armed forces need information about the exact location and internal aspects of every building within a combat zone, and the surrounding area, so that soldiers know what they are walking into.
“Rugged tablets provide military personnel with real-time building schematics via GPS, which includes details for every physical structure, including the number of floors, rooms, entrances, elevators, staircases and so on. In addition to providing this valuable tactical information about the combat environment, rugged tablets also facilitate continuous and secure real-time communication, enabling superior operational agility and improving the strategic execution of military engagements.”
However, being able to make use of these tools doesn’t come without its challenges, whether the device is in use or not. US-based power and communications solutions provider Ulatrlife developed a step-by-step guide to selecting the right battery for a portable military device. Although aimed at design engineers during the research and development stage of a new device, the guide offered an insight into the future use and, as such, the environments it would be expected to function in. Six key points were raised:
- What temperature will be experienced?
- What physical conditions will be faced?
- How will the device be stored?
- How long must the battery last?
- What are the devices dimensions?
- Is a smart battery required?
Admittedly the last two are quite specific to the battery itself, but all give a glimpse into the world of the portable military device and the conditions it can expect once operational. Of particular interest are the first two. Naturally, any device will be tested in extreme conditions, such as heat or cold, but they will also have to contend with the rough and tumble of military life – rough terrain, being thrown or dropped, and being submerged in water to name but a few.
Lewin offers one example of how ordinary tech might be challenged in out-of-the-ordinary environments. “An average laptop has 300 nits screen brightness, which is not good for trying to view in the bright sunlight,” he says. “If you can’t see the data you can’t do your work.” It’s because of these more niche situations that rugged technology has become more popular in militaries the world over. “Rugged technology offers improved productivity and more secure access to data, with devices that can offer this real-time communication and also perform multiple functions, while withstanding the demands of a wide variety of environments,” continues Lewin.
It’s not just in the field that this technology is being utilised. Lewin says army operations are using rugged tech for field exercises, field training, classroom training, in warfare logistics, material command centres, flight line support, front-line support, and generally improving the overall productivity for soldiers and new recruits going through training.
– Daw Tsai, DT Research
Technology intended for use by the military has to meet certain standards – it simply should not be an off-theshelf consumer-level product. In the US, manufacturers’ devices must meet MIL-STD-810 standards, a series of lab tests that are supposed to ensure the viability of a device for use in the battlespace. However, for some time there have been questions about how those lab tests are conducted and, with a number of other standards available that manufacturers can reach for, the decision of which device to choose can be fraught, sometimes even a matter of life and death.
Writing in a 2016 blog, Sandy McCaskie, of Xplore, warned, “Not all ratings systems require thirdparty validation, like C1D2/C1Z2 or ATEX Hazardous Location certifications. It’s very easy to trust a rugged tablet’s specifications on paper if all minimum criteria boxes are checked.” She said there were some military-grade mobile PCs that claim to be MIL-STD-810G, IP65 or IP67-compliant but were “only designed to, built to, or tested to certain thresholds, perhaps now real-world scenarios”.
There is a battle taking place among rugged technology developers and manufacturers to educate on the perils of selecting the wrong device, and the dangers of misunderstanding the priorities in the selection process. One contentious issue was highlighted by MobileDemand in a guide to military standards on its website. “Some companies will state ‘MIL-STD-810G’ and not specify a drop height,” it says. Under the requirements of MIL-STD-810G, a drop test should be carried out. The test comprises 26 consecutive drops, landing at least once on each corner, face and edge.
When complete, the tablet must have no significant damage and remain fully functional. But on the spec sheet provided when purchasing these devices, some manufacturers argue their competitors don’t say how many different devices are used – up to five are allowed in each 26-drop test. As these are lab tests, there is always scope, say some in the industry, for the product not to be suitable once deployed. “Tests are often conducted in labs or during field tests focused on measuring single stressors, and sometimes it’s just impossible to predict how corrosive Middle East sand can be on a mobile PC until it’s in the field for days on end,” warns McCaskie.
Combination products for maximum effect
Although these concerns exist, clearly rugged technology has a huge role to play in military service, with more capability set to be made available in coming months and years. A major development Lewin was keen to highlight is the ability to link rugged communications, such as tablets, to drones. “Drone technology, paired with tablets, is allowing for mapping, explosive testing, hazard assessment, surveillance and scene investigation, enabling improved safety of units,” he says. “Another interesting and new technology is graphically intensive 3D training with 4G graphics cards providing the performance for war game simulation that provides a lifelike experience with software developed by the US Army,” he continues.
In the not too distant future, the role of rugged technology will undoubtedly evolve further, becoming even more mission critical. The ability to have a world of tools at your fingertips is already well proven. By facilitating communication, strategy and data sharing, among the many other capabilities it can offer, field deployable technology will continue to support missions, combative training and peacekeeping. In an information age, this tool could prove to be invaluable.
“With the current rugged technology it is now possible to have live and continuous communications with headquarters, and never have down time. Intelligence is based on the live data, and when central command can take this data and create a plan, they can incorporate that into the logistics for troop deployments and field work,” says Lewin. “With a tool like a rugged tablet, especially when combined with other technology such as drones, you can better relay data with exact details – maps, live feed camera and so on – and get the full picture at both ends. This live two-way data means units are better able to make quick changes and be more agile,” he concludes.