Military Embedded Systems

Rugged handheld evolve to meet warfighter needs


September 15, 2014

Designers of rugged handheld computers and tablets for the military market are upgrading designs to meet the changing needs of warfighters on the frontline.

Warfighters are in constant need of computing gear that shortens and improves the efficiency of decision cycles, costs less to procure, and is lightweight so soldiers and Marines are not burdened with more unnecessary weight in their packs. They want state-of-the-art devices like iPhones, Samsung tablets, and lightweight laptops like their friends and family in civilian life have back home.

While warfighters – just like students, business travelers, and computer gamers – want extended battery life, lower power, and more resistive touchscreens, they also have unique needs for more flexibility driven by battlefield applications.

“One thing our military customers are asking from us is options,” says Sean Hall, national sales manager, Army, Panasonic System Communications Company of North America in Newark, N.J. “The days of one-size-fits-all mobile computers are over. Today, service members need to have the flexibility to select the ideal tool for the job, not make what they have meet their needs.” For example, a service member doing flight line maintenance may require a lightweight, handheld mobile computer with sunlight readability, while another service member may need a laptop with a larger screen and a full keyboard, he continues. But one thing remains constant: both will need rugged durability, high performance, and long battery life.

“The basic needs in the industry are fluid at this point in time, thus the requirements follow suit,” agrees Jim Shaw, vice president of engineering, Crystal Group in Hiawatha, Iowa. “Some of our clients want extensive mapping capabilities with route planning and a system that is capable of running high-compute power applications like Falcon View and Blue Force Tracker (FBCB2).” Yet, they have other clients who are more interested in unmanned aerial vehicle/unmanned ground vehicle (UAV/UGV) control interfaces, he adds, who are “not as concerned about size and battery life but want enough screen surface area and resolution to monitor and control multiple autonomous vehicles at any one time.

“Our focus has turned from making everything within the system to customizing the best industry has to offer and creating sufficient I/O to satisfy the needs of multiple mission profiles in a single kit architecture,” Shaw continues. The TAC-V2 I/O and power distribution module is a system that enables the user to build the capability of the compute or communications package by snapping the modules together. The capability of the system is structured around a USB 3.0 backbone that provides video links, power management, RS232, video-out, and communications data interface (see Figure 1).


Figure 1: The TAC-V2 I/O and power distribution module measures approximately 3” x 4” x 1.25” and weighs approximately 0.6 lbs.

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Commercial origins of rugged mobile computing

The commercial sector has played a large part in the design of handheld devices for the military, with users wanting their rugged systems to be similar to the consumer electronics they use in their personal lives. “Our customers’ expectations of features are driven by consumer-grade smartphones and tablets,” confirms Steve Motter, vice president of business development for Industrial Electronic Engineers, Inc. (IEE) in Van Nuys, Calif. “The customers are very used to iPhone-style gesturing (pinch and swipe for zooming and moving windows or images, respectively), and being able to accomplish that with low power and gloved-hand operation while still supporting all of the EMI [electromagnetic interference] requirements is key,” he adds.

In addition to consumer technology, enhanced display technology is also being researched and used. These include OLED (organic light-emitting diode) and flexible displays, as well as resurgence in the use of transflective displays, which use ambient light to reflect the image on the screen. “That’s one of the techniques that we’re using to achieve sunlight readability of displays. And that technology continues to evolve to higher-density, higher-resolution displays,” Motter says. “IEE continues to track the technology related to OLED displays and the flexible displays, and we’re monitoring and testing from the point of view of temperature performance and long life performance and supply.”

Rugged computers and tablets are expected to work in all types of weather conditions and times of day. Motter says displays have to be sunlight readable but also legible in adjustable lighting all the way down to low light, including night vision goggle compatibility. “The trends are to try to accommodate all of that in extremely low power, which is very challenging in terms of that implementation,” he adds.

Features such as these enhanced display capabilities enable the most functionality out of the rugged mobile computing systems. Warfighters need reliable equipment that will not fail even in the harshest of conditions. “Mobile computers must work how, when, and where their users do, without compromise. This includes using them in direct sunlight, in the elements, with gloves on, or for long periods of time without stopping to recharge,” Hall says. See lead-in image for Panasonic’s 5-inch Toughpad FZ-E1 rugged handheld tablet.

Panasonic engineers are developing a rain-sensing feature that permits handlers to continue to use the touchscreen in the rain without the raindrops activating the screen. They are also adding more hot-swap functionality into their rugged systems, which enable users to swap out depleted batteries for fresh ones without powering down the device, according to Hall.

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Managing SWaP

Size, weight, and power (SWaP) limitations for small handheld devices continue to be one of the toughest challenges for rugged mobile computer manufacturers to overcome. Though SWaP restrictions apply to technology in all types of military applications, the challenges are greater in mobile handheld systems due to their small size and typical lack of active cooling.

“With processors that use less power and create less heat, we can create mobile computers in smaller and smaller form factors,” Hall says. For soldiers on the move, smaller, less bulky devices are more convenient, while fanless mobile systems present significant advantages through their greater mean time between failure (MTBF) and more stealth operation.


Figure 2: IEE’s 3.5” handheld SWAP-C CDU is a low power, sunlight readable display that leverages high performance ARM processing and thin-client architecture.

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On the processing side, IEE targets processors in the portable market that are in the 2-10 W range for the portable applications and embedded handheld devices. “That’s one of the areas where we’re able to bring higher performance in within the SWaP objective. The other is by taking advantage of SOMs [systems on module] and SoCs [systems-on-a-chip] where there is more embedded silicon-level peripherals that do graphics acceleration, communication acceleration, and encoding/decoding,” Motter says. To maintain low power consumption and lower heat generation in mobile systems, IEE relies on ARM processors or x86 multi-core Atom processors in their devices (see Figure 2).

Military mobility market continues to evolve

Rugged handheld computing for the warfighter remains a huge market, with new trends appearing continuously. Even firms known more for their mail-order home computers such as Dell in Round Rock, Texas, are leveraging their commercial designs in rugged form factors for military and government use.

Dell engineers released their Latitude 14 Rugged Extreme notebook and the Latitude 12 Rugged Extreme convertible notebook for defense and law enforcement users earlier this year (see Figure 3). The products are built with resistant ultra-polymers and magnesium alloy. Data is protected from the elements with sealed doors and compression gaskets while enabling performance at high temperatures with fourth-generation QuadCool thermal management.


Figure 3: The Latitude Rugged Extreme 12/14 notebooks from Dell are for defense and law enforcement applications in extreme environments.

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Based on feedback from their users they added: a direct-view outdoor-readable display for reducing glare and reflectivity with less reliance on backlighting, resulting in longer battery life; a resistive multi-touch on the Latitude 12 Rugged Extreme for recognizing intuitive gestures while wearing thick gloves; a rugged “flip-hinge” convertible display with the Latitude 12 Rugged Extreme; and as much as 16 GB of memory and as much as 512 GB of solid-state storage. The laptops have a battery life up to 8.5 hours and up to 14 hours, respectively; have fourth-generation Intel Core processors; and come with a dedicated GPS.

For more information on rugged handheld and wearable technologies for the warfighter, see the rugged computing company listing below.

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