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How DARPA delivers tactical apps to mobile devices in the field

Dec. 4, 2013 - 03:45AM   |  
By ERIK SCHECHTER   |   Comments
DARPA's TransApps effort lets soldiers in the field access tactical apps, such as interactive maps, on secure Android devices. (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency)
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Forget about muddling through with folded paper maps and line-of-sight radio comms. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has been building a library of mission-critical apps, such as updated digital maps with interactive features, which troops on foot can access from secure Android devices.

Called Transformative Apps, or TransApps, the DARPA program has fielded more than 3,000 mobile devices to Army brigades in Afghanistan and developed more than 50 apps since 2011. In addition, the agency is developing a new business model to quickly get new software updates to field.

Most recently, DARPA in late October held a Geospatial Mobile Integration Technical Exchange, which drew representatives from the the military services, the Defense Department and industry. The purpose, TransApps program manager Doran Michels told reporters at a news briefing Tuesday, was to create common standards for this new “frontier space.”

During the course of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, top brass saw an increase in high-quality ISR products. However, “ground soldiers outside the wire had few tools to share information and understand their battlefield environment,” Michels noted.

To help rectify the situation, DARPA created in 2007 the Tactical Ground Reporting (TIGR) System, a map-based tool for company and platoons. Patrol leaders could use TIGR to print screen shots of geospatial maps before going out on missions. But if the unit was retasked in the field, those printouts were rendered useless.

Likewise, the Army’s canceled-then-revived Land Warrior system, which included such gear as a flip-down eye monocle for map displays, was another attempt to improve the situational awareness of dismounted troops.

“But soldiers generally weren’t that satisfied with the performance or the ease of use,” Michels said.

By 2010, DARPA started to look at secure mobile devices and military apps. Now, in a world where even Grandma plays “Angry Birds” on her smartphone during a trans-Atlantic flight, the idea of getting special military apps to soldiers doesn’t seem too radical. But doing so came with several unique challenges.

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Starting with hardware, the agency had to ensure that the new mobile devices would be secure. In the commercial world, this is done by actively managing the system while it’s on a cell network. But comms are patchy in the field, so security features had to reside on the device itself — and that meant modifications.

The agency chose Android-based devices.

“In 2010, the iPhone was the darling of consumers, but it was a closed platform that we couldn’t adapt for our purposes,” Michels said, adding that with its new security features it would take “several CPU years” to crack the log-in password on a military Android.

Another issue was integrating the devices into existing military infrastructure. The smartphones needed software that could recognize, and adapt to, the particular data constraints of whatever network was used, be it PRC-152, MPU4 or Satcom.

Those challenges met, TransApps field trials began in 2011, and since then, DARPA has distributed 3,000 devices — all while building new apps and releasing new versions of the Android operating system. Technology is now also being transitioned to Army Program Executive Office Soldier’s Nett Warrior program.

Army Maj. Tim Terese, who has used the TransApps smartphone to plan infantry air assaults in Afghanistan, called it a “vast improvement in dismounted situational awareness.”

Looking forward, Michels said the government would need to develop a common standard for tactical apps to eliminate vulnerabilities and facilitate greater interoperability. While apps are the most visible part of TransApps, “there are so many structural elements behind it that are essential,” he contended.

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