Military Embedded Systems

For every soldier, a smartphone


October 09, 2013

John McHale

Editorial Director

Military Embedded Systems

Commercial smartphone technology, long thought to be too unsecure or not rugged enough for battlefield use, is gaining support among U.S. military program managers who see it as a cost-effective way to quickly get capability in the hands of warfighters.

Most consumers love their iPhone or Samsung smartphone, but if asked whether they trust it enough to take it into battle, rely on it being secure and to not fail when lives are on the line, most would probably answer with an emphatic no. If so, they might be surprised to learn that military planners are actually pushing for more commercial smartphone technology to be developed and deployed to the warfighter even on the battlefield.

Some of the reasoning is economical, as sequestration has tightened U.S. military development funding and smartphone technology is cost-effective. However, much of the enthusiasm behind this push is that the functionality of commercial smartphones and tablets is way ahead of most military communication devices.

“Military leaders have been saying they want to use commercial tablets in the battlespace for some time,” says Wesley Mitchell, Account Manager, Persistent Systems, New York City, NY ( “They want real-time situational awareness of the battlespace for every warfighter in a cost-effective manner.”

Officials at the Marine Corps Systems Command are promoting using commercial technology on next-generation phones for warfighters, says Chip Downing, Senior Director, Business Development, Aerospace & Defense, Wind River Systems in Alameda, CA ( “They say they believe there will always be a class of people that will need extra ruggedization and high levels of security, and Multi-Level Security (MLS) but the majority of the Department of Defense (DoD) personnel will not.”

It makes sense as “the technology in smartphones far exceeds that of traditional military radios,” he says. “Young soldiers today are very comfortable with smartphones for all types of communications.”

Marine Corps smartphone requirements

Marine Corps Capt. Josh Dixon gave a presentation earlier this year titled “Trusted Handheld Information Brief” that covered the business case, requirements, and security concerns, Downing says. The security requirements would include Common Criteria protection profiles for information technology security for assessment and using NIST SP 800 Series publications for best practices for optimizing security in mobile platform deployments, he adds.

“The vast majority of DoD users need some type of security qualification on their phones, but they don’t need the highest levels obtainable (EAL6/EAL7). A dual-mode phone does not need Common Criteria EAL7 to deliver secure communications,” Downing continues.

In Dixon’s presentation he states the common user requirements will include:

– Multiple small form factor devices (i.e., smartphone and tablet sizes) – size and weight.

– Access to multiple domains (e.g., internet, intranet, high side).

– Access to wireless networks (i.e., PAN, WLAN, WAN).

– High data availability.

– Commercially available (current/relevant) mobile Operating Systems (OSs).

– Leveraging an inherent display to read in direct sunlight and no light.

– Capable of reporting position location information.

– Using common, commercially available device I/O.

– Storing data with a capacity to retain for the duration of the mission.

– Affordability.

“Most of the things Dixon is promoting can be deployed today – there is no future technologies that need to be invented,” Downing says. “We know how to do this, and we have the technology to do this – it is just the act of putting it all together on a phone. We know how to design a secure hypervisor, know how to do trusted boot, and how to manage updates and packages. It’s an integration challenge more than a scientific invention endeavor.”


“Hypervisors are an excellent way to separate personal and business functions on a phone,” Downing says. “You end up having data stored on a common platform that separates memory and data access. Smartphones based upon a hypervisor will enable more rapid technology refreshes. One can scrape the entire platform clean, or one can replace applications and/or the operating environment as required – this is especially attractive if a communications device needs to be rapidly provisioned for an upcoming mission. The rapid deployment of capabilities is the way of the future.

“As part of our portfolio of trusted systems, Wind River has a commercially available hypervisor and our VxWorks MILS product, a high assurance hypervisor suitable for the most demanding security requirements,” Downing says. “We are also developing fixed and mobile platforms that combine virtualization capabilities and general purpose operating systems with Intel, ARM, and other architectures. These platforms will ensure the security of enterprise data at rest, data in use, and data in motion and will include cloud-based policy control, system monitoring, and data analysis packages.”

Military smartphone challenges

“The Army wants connectivity you can fit in a pocket and that can handle extreme temperatures,” says Richard Lane, Vice President, Strategic Business Development at AMREL (American Reliance, Inc.) in El Monte, CA ( “We worked with prime contractors like Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics several years ago on the Network Integration Exercise (NIE) to develop a lightweight device – the BattlePhone – that supported voice, data, and video that each soldier could wear. We’d already built a small handheld – the DB6 – based on the Wintel architecture, but it still had limitations for this application in terms of battery power and network connectivity.

“Network connectivity is major challenge when bringing smartphone technology to warfighters,” Lane continues. “They often don’t know if they will have Wi-Fi, cell, or Sat/Tac connections in the field. Although the Marine Corps and the Army do have deployable 3G base stations with a 1-10 mile radius coverage area, broadband coverage is rarely available to the dismounted soldier on battlefields.

“Smartphones designed for battlefield applications have certain requirements that the consumer market doesn’t even think about, such as bringing native Ethernet capability out of the processor and to do that you have to start working with manufacturers at the supply chain level,” he explains. “Ruggedization is also an issue as many of these devices will have to operate in temperatures that reach the upper limits of human survivability.

“For AMREL smartphones that must meet stringent security requirements, we start at the board level with a Trusted Platform Module (TPM) for hardware-based encryption,” Lane says. “We also use an Android SE OS that is sanctioned by the National Security Agency (NSA). Connectivity on the device meets FIPS 140-2 standards, and with AES256 encryption, data at rest and data in transit are covered. The device itself has two-factor Advanced Authentication – a password and a biometric, like a fingerprint or even a biometric smartcard.”

SWaP and ARM

“Another factor that needs to be considered is Size, Weight, and Power (SWaP),” Lane says. “Many modern processors generate a lot of heat and have short battery life. This is why many companies are turning toward ARM architectures, which consume less power, for their handheld designs. For embedded computing applications ARM works really well because you don’t have to work through Dynamic Link Libraries (DLL) and massive directories with every command as you do with WINTEL. It enables you to execute directly from the OS into the hardware. What the user wants, the machine does, which helps mitigate power consumption.”

AMREL’s ARM-based handheld offering is the ROCKY DF6, which weighs less than a pound, has three separate locations for antennas, and three separate locations for connectors. Depending on requirements, it can come with RS232, USB, LAN, VGA, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, WWAN and/or GPS. The DF6A and Flexpedient  are AMREL’s ARM-based product lines running on Android and Android SE.

Android popular choice

The smartphone platform of choice for many of these applications is Android technology, especially the new Android SE OS.

“Android happens to be the best platform right now for displaying video, blue force tracking, pulling down multiple feeds, etc.,” Mitchell says. “The Android architecture is much more open than say Apple, which is a closed system. It is much easier to build applications on Android and there are also more options as far as hardware with different processors and performance speeds.”


Figure 1: The Wave Relay Android Kit from Persistent Systems pairs Android devices with Wave Relay, a radio system that provides a secure Mobile Ad Hoc Network (MANET).

(Click graphic to zoom by 1.9x)




Mitchell’s company, Persistent Systems, has developed a product already used by warfighters that enables smartphone technology by pairing Android devices with Wave Relay, a radio system that provides a secure Mobile Ad Hoc Network (MANET). Their Wave Relay Android Kit provides real-time situational awareness over a mobile ad hoc networking system while maintaining connectivity on the move, he says. “Once operators are logged into the ad hoc network, they can talk to anyone else on the network, receive blue force tracking data, see video streaming to everyone in the network, use biometrics apps, and get access to SATCOM.” (See Figure 1.)

“It is a low-cost solution to share and disseminate information compared to more expensive legacy systems such as traditional video downlinks,” Mitchell continues. “With the Android kit you will only spend hundreds instead of thousands of dollars.” It has user throughput of 37 Mbps UDP and 27 Mbps TCP. Persistent Systems also developed a USB to Ethernet cable that enables operators to view data transmitted on the Wave Relay network to include videos, position location information, sensor information, and any other data. It weighs 182.5 grams, has an operating temperature range of -140 to +85 °C, and has a battery life of 16+ hours. “The Note 2 version of the Wave Relay Android Kit is now available and has a faster processor and larger display, which is better for using apps,” he adds.

Prototype to product

To date, most smartphone deployments have been of the prototype variety or for deployments with Special Forces or in demonstrations like the NIE, as the services as a whole have yet to generate a large volume contract that would encourage product development from industry.

“We can prototype cool stuff all day long but until the customer has some reasonable volume it’s not practical for us to go into production on everything we prototype,” Lane says. “Special Operations Command (SOCOM) operators are willing to try anything that will give them dominance or superiority on the battlefield. A lot of technology is commercialized via early adoptions and then brought back out into the mainstream.

“In the case of the BattlePhone prototype from the NIE we are making it affordable by developing a version for the larger volume law enforcement market called the Flexpedient MBD,” Lane continues. “The new phone supports all the necessary FBI security protocols (CJIS SP 5.2) – very similar to what military users would require. The device has full biometrics and can communicate securely over any cellular network including 1stNet. So if an authorized user has a 1stNet account you need Verizon and AT&T to roam, but you can Push-to-Talk (PTT) and you can access both the consumer and the public safety professional networks.”