Military Embedded Systems

Leveraging rugged SFFs to power wearable technology


March 20, 2009

Mike Southworth


Leveraging rugged SFFs to power wearable technology

Mounting a full-function computer on a person takes the right blend of miniaturization and ruggedization, along with a vision for functionality and usability. This application shows the technology and thinking behind a wearable unit used in today's military programs.

The interaction between humans and computers is a subject that has captured the imagination of filmmakers, writers, and scientists alike. The idea that computers can become so tightly integrated into our lives that we hardly notice their presence is no longer reserved for science fiction, but rather is quickly turning into reality.

Seamlessly assimilating this human-computer interaction is the concept behind wearable computers. Different from mobile devices, wearable computers are targeted for applications that require computational support while the user's hands, voice, eyes, and mind are actively engaged in the physical environment. Wearable computing gives military programs the freedom to equip soldiers with wearable networks that create a competitive advantage in network-centric warfare.

Actualizing network-centric warfare

The DoD's net-centric military strategy aims to create a robustly networked force with improved situational awareness and thus mission effectiveness. In net-centric operations, every soldier, weapon, and vehicle becomes a node on a massive tactical information network through wireless connectors. The U.S. military sees net-centric operations as a compelling mechanism for coordinating diverse resources in field operations. This immense data sharing enables field and strategic commanders to obtain real-time situational awareness for tactical planning, give deployed units immediate access to intelligence information, and track both troop and enemy movement across an entire battlefield.

This net-centric approach proves that computers are playing an increasingly critical role on the battlefield. Wearable computing technology provides soldiers with the computing power needed for combat, thereby increasing the success of net-centric warfare.

Only one piece of the puzzle

In their own right, wearable computers provide a vital technology for improving mission effectiveness and troop safety. However, the value of wearable computers depends on the functionality and ruggedness of the networking equipment deployed across the rest of the battlefield.

For example, computers and network equipment in military vehicles, aircraft, and mission control centers are used to create an accurate analysis of a current battlefield situation. To achieve success in net-centric warfare, battlefield networking equipment must meet the following criteria:

  • Ruggedized to handle temperature extremes as well as severe mechanical shock and vibration
  • Portable enough to address space and weight concerns
  • Compatible with a wide range of communications platforms, including wire-line, spread-spectrum RF, optical, and satellite links
  • Based on COTS technology to meet the modern military's budget constraints

To ensure that each piece of the net-centric puzzle meets these rigorous requirements, Parvus developed a line of ultra-rugged COTS vehicle mission computers and IP network routers and switches for demanding military programs.

For example, the DuraMAR ruggedized Mobile IP access router (Figure 1) is based on a PC/104 stacking architecture with Cisco IOS routing. The router includes an isolated MIL-STD-704 compliant power supply that accepts a wide range of input DC and provides isolation against voltage spikes and transients experienced by military aircraft and vehicles.

Figure 1: The DuraMAR Mobile IP access router based on a PC/104 architecture with Cisco IOS routing.



Because a router by itself is not enough to provide a network link, the ruggedized subsystem supports a distributed architecture that enables peripheral devices to be connected, offering radio and other communications links as well as end-user nodes. This architecture uses Power over Ethernet (PoE) and Power with Serial (PwS) to supply power to these peripherals.

Designed for mission operations

In a parallel development, Eurotech created the wearable Zypad WL1000 computer (Figure 2) with the goal of designing a product that completely integrates itself within users' personal space without monopolizing their attention and at the same time gives them computer access without interrupting their activities.

Figure 2: The Zypad WL1000 gives users quick and easy computer access.

(Click graphic to zoom by 1.9x)



Creating this wearable computer required designers to overcome many significant technological challenges. Studies on ergonomics highlighted the importance of weight, wearability, and screen size in a wearable electronic device. To satisfy these prerequisites, designers miniaturized the computer's circuit card assemblies to make it easy to use and comfortable to wear. Designers used stacked PCBs connected with rigid flex circuits (see Figure 3) to integrate functionality, including all the antennas for GPS, Wi-Fi, and ZigBee.

Figure 3: Flex circuits connect stacked PCBs to incorporate wireless functionality in a wearable computer.



The latest rugged version of the Zypad, the WR1100 (Figure 4), is designed to meet MIL-STD-810F environmental and MIL-STD-461E EMI requirements, making it suitable for military, homeland defense, first responder, security, emergency service, and in-vehicle applications.

Figure 4: The latest version of the Zypad, the WR1100, designed to meet strict military requirements.



This device was designed specifically with soldiers in mind, offering the following enhanced features:

  • Mission mode: With the mode selector, users can change the device's configuration from normal to mission mode. In mission mode, the user cannot inadvertently switch off the unit. The selector also exposes a programmable alarm button that can be programmed to perform special functions such as erase memory, turn off the LCD backlight, switch off radios, or send a distress call acting as a locator beacon.
  • Biometric fingerprint sensor: By identifying the user, this sensor protects the unit from unauthorized access. In normal mode, users can access the common menu, but only authorized users can access info while the device is in mission mode.
  • Wi-Fi, ZigBee, and Bluetooth wireless connections: These standardized wireless technologies provide users with options depending on data transfer size and number of nodes.
  • Accelerometer: The patented orientation sensor saves battery power by changing the system to standby mode when the user lowers his/her arm.
  • Modular expansion: An integrated, hot-swappable 12-channel GPS receiver module or custom I/O module enables the system to handle specialized I/O or communication requirements (such as 3G or WiMAX) in the field.

Outfitting civil defenders

Intelligent wearable technology that can exchange data in real time under extreme conditions is no longer a goal for the future, as evidenced by the recent deployment of the Zypad in the Civil Defense Unit of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Italy. Italian civil defense operators are outfitted with a fully wearable and noninvasive computer system for computation and communications purposes in extreme conditions. The uniform for the Italian Civil Defense Unit integrates health monitoring sensors, a helmet fitted with day/night-vision video cameras, and the wrist-worn computer. This technology allows the civil corps to work hands-free, simultaneously communicating and exchanging multimedia data with the command and control center.

The objective of this project is to improve safety for squad members in the field and equip them with their own mini command and control center to receive in real time all multimedia information (maps, videos, information, and audio) needed to optimize mission coordination and management. In addition, the new uniform is fitted with internal sensors that continuously monitor emergency workers' vital physiological traits, recording heart rate, body temperature, hydration levels, and overall health status.

All the devices and their functions are coordinated through the wearable computer, on which images and data can be seen and transmitted to the emergency dispatcher. An integrated GPS system pinpoints the wearer's exact location and generates a map of the area.

Besides the Italian Civil Defense Unit, several U.S. prime defense contractors are currently evaluating the role of wearable computers in various programs. Some think these computers will greatly empower commanders and war fighters with actionable knowledge that can provide a strategic advantage for network-centric operations. Others view wearable computers as more ergonomic or functional replacements for the rugged PDAs or tablet PCs used today.

Beyond military applications

The most challenging aspect of designing wearable technology is concentrating the calculation power and multimedia applications in a unit small enough to be worn by the user. This is where Small Form Factors (SFFs) play a critical role in making wearable technology possible. In addition, wearable computers take advantage of the constant innovations in COTS technologies being developed for portable consumer electronics.

While hundreds of wearable computers are already deployed in homeland security and military applications, technological advancements are making these devices more practical for a host of industrial applications that can benefit from hands-free computer access and a constant network connection. Nonmilitary deployments include the following application areas:

  • First responder: In emergency situations, wearable computers can help coordinate teams and rescue workers by permitting on-scene workers to exchange information in real time and locate workers' exact locations.
  • Health care: Wearable computers can provide medical personnel and paramedics with real-time updates on patients' clinical status. In addition, medical staff in first aid situations can have wireless connections to the ambulance, which can then communicate with the control center via radio. This allows medical staff to exchange information with the control center directly from the emergency site while maintaining contact with the patient.
  • Logistics: Wearable computers can save time by simplifying inventory tasks, goods sorting in courier hubs, and pickup and delivery from express couriers (see Figure 5).

Figure 5: Wearable computer technology can be useful in industrial applications such as inventory handling.

(Click graphic to zoom by 1.8x)



Future possibilities

The military's demand for wearable technology is steadily increasing, especially with programs such as the Future Force Warrior of Future Combat Systems and others pushing technology advancement forward. Recent market research indicates that wearable computers are expected to surpass the early adopter phase and become more widely deployed in the next 4-8 years.

Wearable technology architecture may soon be based on new lower-power Intel CPU architectures. This development would provide more processing power while improving operating system compatibility and allowing the device to work with additional operating system types. Wearable computers are quickly proving that the world of computing has the potential to profoundly influence the way we interact with technology.

Mike Southworth serves as director of marketing for Salt Lake City-based Parvus Corporation, a manufacturer of rugged COTS computing and IP networking subsystems for military and aerospace applications. In his role at Parvus, Mike oversees the product management and marketing communications programs. Mike holds an MBA from the University of Utah and a BA in Public Relations from Brigham Young University.



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