Military Embedded Systems

Rugged military handheld designs inspired by consumer world


September 10, 2013

John McHale

Editorial Director

Military Embedded Systems

Cost pressures and consumer handheld technology increasingly drive rugged wearable computer designs for warfighter applications. Meanwhile, new ISR requirements for full motion video are pushing rugged display designers to innovate image enhancement technology.

Rugged wearable computing designs are typically based on human factor feedback from the warfighter, as well as reduced Size, Weight, and Power (SWaP) requirements. However, in today’s uncertain economic environment, there are also increased pressures on industry to reduce cost and fund their own product development.

“On the business side we continue to see pressures to reduce costs and wait times,” says Steve Motter, Vice President of Business Development for IEE in Van Nuys, CA. “The government wants more off-the-shelf equipment and intends to spend less money on development. The consumer marketplace drives the tablet/wearable computer market. Military users want the same level of functionality that you get from modern iPhones and iPads with military-type performance. Many times in system development, guys will prototype by using Android on a consumer device, then port it over to a military-grade device and expect the same price point as the consumer product. This is a challenge, as developing security and encryption for these devices is complicated work.”

“Today’s Service member, more often than not, is a native of the digital world and has grown up with advanced technology,” says James Poole, Director of Federal Sales, Panasonic System Communications Company of North America. “He or she is looking for a device to use on the battlefield that matches, if not exceeds, the capabilities of his or her personal devices used at home. The technology also offers connectivity, long battery life, portability, and ease-of-use to truly meet the needs of today’s soldier. Panasonic offers the Toughpad FZ-G1 Windows 8 tablet, which was designed for mission-critical users. It has a sunlight-readable 10.1 IPS screen powered by a 3rd generation Intel Core i5 vPro processor. Panasonic engineers also have designed advanced heat-pipe assemblies that channel excess thermals away from sensitive internal components into their rugged tablets.”

“There is a consistent Department of Defense (DoD) strategy to reduce risk and control costs and leverage investment dollars of industry,” says Bill Guyan, Vice President at Network and Imaging Systems group in Melbourne, FL. “For our win on the Mounted Family of Computing Systems (m-FoCS), we had to show up with bit samples, which is not particularly new to DRS and is kind of the way we’ve been positioning ourselves. In this environment, you need to show the customer the product, not tell them about it.”

“As defense spending continues to decrease globally, commands are looking for ways to do more with less,” says Norman Lange, Director of Product Development at Black Diamond Advanced Technology in Tempe, AZ. “Military planners are looking not only for the best value for their limited acquisition monies, but are looking to reduce the government’s burden to develop/mature technologies [that] can be applied to multiple requirements. Companies that create and deliver COTS solutions at the system level (i.e., provide a total solution to the problem, not just provide a new widget) are well-positioned to weather this storm better.”

Wearable systems and the warfighter

For wearable computer applications, most of the features and capabilities come out of feedback from the operators themselves. “Historically, we credit many Modular Tactical System (MTS) features and functions to good ideas, suggestions, and lessons learned from our early adopter customers within Special Operations Command (SOCOM) element commands,” Lange says. “Most recently, we have been working closely with several end-customers to apply the multimission MTS solution to new mission sets including Remotely Piloted Vehicle (RPV), communications and networking, and Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) missions.” The MTS is a modular wearable electronics platform that is optimized for dismounted precision targeting, command and control, C4ISR, EOD, and other dismounted missions that require a computing function.

“The newest additions to our MTS ensemble provide the warfighter with more capabilities at the same weight, and in the case of the Radio Power Wedge, help reduce weight for extended dismounted missions,” Lange says. “Our new dual-core Tactical Mission Controller (TMC) provides a 2x CPU performance increase, more than 4x graphics performance increase, and supports dual simultaneous displays. The newly improved Universal Tactical Display (UTD) multitouch enables two-finger gesture support (such as the familiar ‘pinch to zoom’ feature) for Windows 7 and newer operating systems.”

The MTS supports a variety of Operating System (OS) choices, including Windows XP, Windows 7, Linux, Android, and soon Windows 8, Lange says. “To date, the vast majority of MTS users are constrained to a particular OS choice based upon the government software [that] they must utilize to execute their particular mission. Often within the DoD, there are very compelling reasons to continue using legacy operating system software (such as the high cost of requalifying application software and obtaining security certifications).”

Crystal Group, a longtime player in rugged servers and computers, is now entering the wearable computing market. Their new offering – the Wearable Computer System (Figure 1) – is an integrated ballistic and computer solution that is designed to meet communication, geospatial operation, and targeting in forward-deployed air support positions. It was designed to comply with the Ballistic Resistance of Body Armor NIJ Standard-010.0, Type III. Its computer, I/O hub, vest, GPS module, and display weigh less than 10 pounds, says Charles Tristani, Business Development Manager at Crystal Group in Hiawatha, IA. “The full vest, including batteries, weighs less than 32 pounds. The system’s touch screen also works with cold weather gear, and the computer runs Linux and Windows.”


Figure 1: The Wearable Computer System from Crystal Group weighs less than 10 pounds.

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The system came out of a U.S. Air Force requirement for a Joint Terminal Attack Computer System (JTACs), Tristani says. It will enable Special Forces operators behind enemy lines to perform such functions as designating targets for bombers to attack, he adds.

Rugged displays

Displays that can provide enhanced imagery in poor visibility environments for ISR applications constitute a significant trend in rugged computing displays. “Navy customers are looking for better visibility in extreme environments, such as underwater video for mine-hunting applications,” says Bob Kopas, Vice President of Military Programs at Z Microsystems in San Diego, CA. The company’s Intelligent Display Series flat-panel LCDs have a Real-Time Enhanced Video (RTEV) algorithm called Global Dehaze that can enhance images in these conditions, he adds.

“We use a fast FPGA built into the display controller in our Intelligent Display Series LCD panels to process image enhancement algorithms to multiple incoming video streams without adding any latency, so the data is viewed in real time,” Kopas continues. “Basically the algorithm removes the detrimental effects of haze, smoke, fog, dust, mist, or other contaminants [that] may be interposed between a camera, for example, and the object or objects it is observing. The algorithm brings out the detail in images otherwise degraded by these poor visibility conditions or atmospheric interference.”

The military is also exploring gesturing for multitouch displays on handheld devices, Motter says. “For gesturing you essentially use gyros and accelerometers to determine the phone’s position and then, based on the type of gesture, a particular function is initiated. In other words, you command the handheld device by motion, not just landscape orientation. For example, on some Motorola phones you can shake [them] and the camera will come on. We have not done anything in this realm yet, but are keeping an eye on it. The ARM processors we use have an interface built in, so putting in the solid-state device is easy.” IEE offers a 10-inch TFT display that can be custom-tailored for harsh military environments.

“Another trend we are seeing in rugged displays is the move from 20-inch panel displays to 21-inch panels as the 20-inch ones are going end-of-life,” Kopas says. “We are spending a lot of time in various programs fitting 21-inch displays into 20-inch form factors and testing for ruggedization.”

Engineers at Digital Systems Engineering (DSE) in Scottsdale, AZ, are seeing more requests for rugged displays in the 6-inch to 17-inch form factor range from their military customers, says Ross Hudman, Account Executive at DSE. “Newer wide screen displays support a 16:9 aspect ratio.

“Regarding ruggedization, our displays are designed to be compliant with the commonly used MIL-STD 810F, EMI-461, MIL-STD-1275, MIL-STD-704, and MIL-STD-3009,” he continues. “These are very common standards that continue to dominate military environmental requirements.” DSE’s latest rugged display is the Programmable Tactical Awareness Controller (PTAC2) series for remote operation of military and avionics imaging systems (Figure 2). It enables on-display control of external equipment such as sensors, computers, masts, and turrets and/or internal display controls. The PTAC2 also has DSE’s night vision technology.


Figure 2: The Programmable Tactical Awareness Controller (PTAC2) series from Digital Systems Engineering is used for remote operation of military and avionics imaging systems.

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Rugged storage

The demand for the rugged Solid-State Drives (SSDs) market is increasing steadily, says Wieslaw Wojtczak, CTO of Memkor in Phoenix, AZ. In the past, SSDs were very expensive, but the price has become more reasonable and their inherent reliability is making them very attractive to military customers, he adds. SSD flash storage is very complex technology, but has excellent resilience in hostile environments. Memkor offers the ORANGE Fast mSATA SSD, which has as much as 256 GB of storage in a 2-inch by 1.2-inch footprint. It also has optional hardware-enabled write protect and hardware/software-triggered data elimination.


DRS Network and Imaging Systems group won the m-FoCS contract, which is a modular family of computers and display systems for next-generation network computing technology on ground vehicles and weapons platforms. Under the contract, DRS engineers will provide platform-computing servers, dismountable tablets, docking stations, installation kits, interconnecting cables, and three sizes of sunlight-readable ruggedized touch-screen display units for more than 40 types of ground vehicles and weapons platforms. The three-year contract is valued at as much as $455 million.

The m-FoCS mounted family of computer systems came about from a request to consolidate mounted computing requirements for several programs, Guyan says. “The consolidation drives costs down and reduces the product sustainment expense. Having commonality and logistics across multiple programs enables dollars to be stretched further.”

The m-FoCs is the follow-on to Force XXI Battle Command Brigade-and-Below (FBCB2) computers, which DRS has been supplying to the DoD for years. m-FoCS can run next-generation software applications such as Joint Battle Command Platform (JBC-P), the Tactical Ground Reporting System (TIGR), and the Forward Observer System (FOS). The contract will support the Army PEO C3T and Project Manager Joint Battle Command Platform (PM JBC-P) at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, MD.

“The major difference between FBCB2 and m-FoCS is the difference between computing and networking,” Guyan notes. “Although FBCB2 was a closed network, now there’s increasing integration of all the systems and a weak link on any system provides weakness for the whole network.” It is anticipated that the m-FoCS computer will run with a virtual machine architecture so that multiple applications can run simultaneously on it with different levels of security – unclassified, secret, and top secret all on the same box, at the same time, as there are different users in a vehicle with different security clearances, he adds.

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