Oct 8th 2011
Smartphones are invading battlefields
COMPANIES ARE NOT the only ones adapting personal technology to their own ends. Armies are too. Next month Singapore is due to issue thousands of tablets to recruits, to help them get ready for training sessions and record what they learn. Britain has also been using tablets to help prepare troops for duty in places such as Afghanistan.
Smartphones and tablets may soon be deployed more widely in combat zones as well. Harris, an American firm with expertise in video communications, is working on an app that allows a tablet computer remotely to control a camera on a drone. And Raytheon, a big American defence company, is developing Raytheon Android Tactical System (RATS), a platform that allows soldiers to choose from numerous smartphone apps, including ones that let them receive images from drones or satellites on their screens.
Armies are keen on consumer technology for several reasons. First, electronics firms are outgunning them in R&D spending on things such as touch screens and other interfaces. “The industry’s annual investment here is well over 1,000 times greater than the military’s,” explains Mark Bigham of Raytheon. With budgets tight, private-sector innovations are even more appealing.
Smartphones can also give a soldier more real-time data about battlefields. RATS offers an augmented-reality app, which overlays an image from a phone’s camera with data from other sources. A soldier can “see” digital markers representing other members of his unit (tracked via GPS signals from their devices). This could help reduce incidents of friendly fire, as well as giving soldiers an advantage over the enemy.
The idea of spotting people’s whereabouts on a screen will be familiar to gamers—another reason why armies are interested in consumer gear. As so many young soldiers have used smart gadgets already, they do not need much training on them. “From an R&D perspective and a training perspective, these devices are a no-brainer,” says Michael Anthony of the US Army’s Communications-Electronics Research Development and Engineering Centre (CERDEC).
There are still hurdles to surmount. Consumer phones are not designed for combat. They also require constant wireless connectivity, as well as long-lasting batteries. Officials at CERDEC say these drawbacks can be overcome. Field tests suggest that with some modest additional protection, smartphones are robust enough for use and special batteries can prolong time between charges. Armies can also tap wireless-networking gear mounted on drones and balloons to keep soldiers connected in the field.
Even with modifications, the phones will still be far cheaper than bespoke devices. And their software can also be updated in a flash. In one test of RATS, users requested a new feature for an app. Three hours later a revised version was available for downloading. Armies have to accept that consumerisation is affecting them too. Soldiers are bringing their own phones with them on deployments, so it would be best if they got their apps from stores that have a military seal of approval.