A soldier uses a VT Miltope rugged laptop to access the Advanced Field Artillery Tactical Data System. (Army)
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As the U.S. military becomes an increasingly mobile force, the trend is toward smaller, lighter and faster rugged computing devices that can handle demanding operational environments. Increasingly, the tools of choice for the military computer market are rugged convertible laptops and tablets designed for use in vehicles, on aircraft and by dismounted troops.
Size, weight, power and cost continue to be important factors that military users consider when purchasing ruggedized notebooks, tablets and handhelds.
“We’re getting pushed by DoD customers to come out with thinner, lighter products that are more mobile orientated than portable,” said Jim Rimay, president of rugged device maker Getac. “In the past, portable computers would be used in one place and then picked up and taken to another place. Now, we’re really seeing a push toward mobility. Even on the notebook side, the requirements for the size and weight of the products are adopting a mobile profile.”
While rugged laptops with greater processing power, memory, data storage, displays and expansion capabilities still have an important place in military computing, with the popularity of tablets like Apple’s iPad in the commercial marketplace, computer manufacturers that serve DoD customers have followed suit and scaled down the size of their products. However, the nonrugged iPad would not survive in the military’s harsh operational settings.
Panasonic, which for decades produced its iconic Toughbook series of rugged laptops for the military, in early 2013 introduced two fully rugged tablets: the Windows 8-based 10.1-inch Toughpad FZ-G1, and the 7-inch Android-based Toughpad B1. The new tablets joined the existing Android-based 10.1-inch Toughpad A1, providing a trio of fully ruggedized tablet options for war fighters who need a level of durability they can’t get from iPads.
“If you take an iPad outside on a flight line, for instance, it’s not a sustainable piece of IT equipment,” said Brad Kersavage, Panasonic’s national sales manager for Air Force and DoD. The G1, he said, “is a light but fully rugged Windows 8 device” that meets Military Standard 810G, “so it will take the bumps and bruises, and encased so that it meets IP65, which is the water-, fog-ingress protection.”
Getac’s Rimay believes that military applications are “mapping” to more specific types of ruggedized devices. For instance, notebooks used to be the preferred computing platform on the flight line for maintenance applications. However, now the trend is toward convertible laptops and tablets based on their functionality. The fastest growing product segment for Getac is the tablet, he said.
Getac’s Android-based Z710 rugged tablet has a 7-inch display. The company’s Windows-based E100, which weighs about 3 pounds and is one of the lightest fully rugged tablets on the market, is designed to the Mil-Std 810G and IP65 standards.
Panasonic offers business-rugged, semirugged and fully rugged machines to the military for a range of applications and settings, from offices to flight lines to the battlefield. The company’s business-rugged C2 Toughbook convertible tablet with12.5-inch display is used by executives at the Pentagon, its semi-rugged Toughbook 53 laptop with 14-inch HD LED display is suited for mission planning indoors, and its fully rugged Toughbook 31 13.1-inch 1200 nit LCD can be found in combat vehicles.
“When the Air Force pararescue guys in Afghanistan, for instance, jump out of an airplane and turn on a laptop it better work,” said Kersavage. “You really can’t have these units break if you’re in a mission-critical environment. You’ve got to be able to design these things with a lot of tolerances so they’re not failing.”
“From the Toughbook 31, we came out with a fully rugged Toughbook 19 convertible tablet,” he said. “The 10.1-inch screen flips around and it can be used in aircraft for mission planning and moving maps.” He added that fully rugged tablets are “never going to be the fastest, with the highest processor speeds.”
The Air Force selected Getac’s B300 fully rugged laptop with 13.3-inch display and the V100 fully rugged convertible tablet with 10.4-inch display — both of which use the Intel Core i7 processor — for the service’s Quantum Enterprise Buy.
“We were the first to market with the i7 processor in our B300,” said Rimay. “In the DoD space, what we saw was that for a vast majority of our customers, given a choice between i7 and i5 processors, they wanted i7, whereas in the consumer market it was really the other way around.”
For the military, there has traditionally been a trade off between processor speed and power consumption. War fighter computing requires the increased processing power of multicore processing, but at the same time, war fighters need low-power systems with long battery life.
“Our H series of rugged tablets has removable batteries and with the Intel i5 processors in it held the load of the computing power a lot better than when we were trying to do something with an Atom processor, which just didn’t have power to run even the Air Force standard desktop configuration and was chewing up battery life,” said Kersavage. “So, we’ve moved to a higher processor. We’re getting eight to 10 hours of true battery life now out of our tablets.”
According to Getac, its B300 rugged notebook has a battery life of up to 15 hours on a single charge. With the dual battery configuration, the company said the B300 has a battery life of up to 30 hours.
A major contract vehicle for military services that need to acquire rugged computers and devices is the Army’s Common Hardware Systems contract. In August 2011, General Dynamics C4 Systems won the five-year, $3.7 billion CHS-4 indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contract to provide the Army and all other military services and agencies with commercial and rugged computers, hand-held devices, notebooks, servers, network devices, peripherals, cables and operational transit cases.
“CHS-4 supports all C4ISR customers with ruggedized technologies to include computing, networking, handheld, wireless and 4G, storage, displays, printers and uninterruptible power supplies,” said Danielle Kays, product director of Common Hardware Systems at the Army’s Program Executive Office for Command, Control and Communications-Tactical.
About 70 percent of the CHS-4 products delivered to date have been rugged systems, Kays said. CHS-4 offers products with three levels of ruggedization: V1+ for partially ruggedized, V2 fully ruggedized, and V3 for “very” or ultraruggedized. Some items are modified or tested to Mil-Std 810G environmental standards for shock, vibration, altitude, humidity, sand and dust, among others, by the vendors to meet more stringent survivability requirements for military tactical environments.
The CHS-4 contract’s most popular V2 rugged laptop is the VT Miltope RLC-3G with a 2.53GHz Intel Core Duo T9400 mobile processor, with an ATI E4690 GPU with 512 MB of video memory. According to VT Miltope, the RLC-3G by having its own |dedicated RAM “allows the GPU to process graphics much |faster, leading to improved 3-D rendering and high definition video.”
When it comes to the ultrarugged V3 computers, CHS-4’s most popular system is the VT Miltope RHTU-1 rugged hand-held terminal unit with 10.1-inch touchscreen. VT Miltope describes the RHTU-1 as a “personal computer solution is an environmentally enhanced, transportable package” that “may be used in a portable configuration or mounted in a vehicle.”
Kays said the demand for hand-held devices from CHS-4 customers has grown “significantly” both in terms of quantities of orders for these devices and in new customer requirement for handhelds. Getac’s PS336 hand-held computer with a 3.5-inch display is part of the military’s trend toward smaller, lighter, rugged computing platforms. The company’s PS236 was the first fully rugged handheld built to meet Mil-Std 810G with high-speed downlink packet access wireless networking, designed for dependability under the most demanding conditions and harshest environments.
“We’re getting into the hand-held market, and those are things that we’re working on down the road,” said Panasonic’s Kersavage. “We’re going to be offering smaller screen sizes. We’ll be into 5-inch screens as we go thinner and lighter.”