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When the chip drops in.

The requirements set by American special operations forces far ruggedised computing reflect the roles they are asked to undertake. Roles like reconnaissance and calling indirect fires must be possible in all weathers and environments. This emphasises the need for the highest levels of ruggedisation, reduced size and weight, coupled with reliability and power efficiency to support long duration missions with limited possibilities for resupply.

Tactronics has been providing ruggedised computers to the US Special Operations Command (Socom) since the company's inception in 1993. Indeed the company is unique in that it expressly describes Socom as its primary end user. Its Croc (Compact Rugged Operational Computer), now being supplied to Socom, is a sub-laptop, built using aluminium alloys to enhance ruggedisation and provide additional heat dissipation qualities. One special operations-type feature is its ability to withstand submersion in one metre of water for one hour. The company's Crow (Compact Rugged Operational Wearable) computer family is also used by Socom.

A number of companies publicly cite the use of their products by special operations forces. Itronix relates that its Go-Book is the only notebook computer that has passed the MIL-S-901D (Navy) heavyweight shock test. The ubiquitous Panasonic Toughbook range has also found ready users amongst those associated with the US Special Operations Command. Other manufacturers have received follow-on contracts to provide additional ruggedisation to Toughbooks already in use. In September 2004 Smartronix was contracted by the Naval Special Warfare Command to upgrade 40 Panasonic CF-34 Toughbooks with the Smartonix Stress Relief system to provide added physical protection from vibration and shock damage for the laptop's ViaSat VDC-400 PCMCIA data controller--a fragile Satcom/line-of-sight/HF communications card. Other companies, such as TDS, are trying to break into the US Special Operations market--its Recon PDA-type product has been trialled with a number of US military organisations, including the US Special Operations Command.

America is also looking overseas for potential products. The LT450 Termite, developed by EDO MBM, illustrates this point. Socom acquired four Termites, which were used in successful trials as a data entry device integrated with the Special Mission Radio System and Special Ops Tactical Video System. The latter provides the capability to capture, store and forward imagery during night and day for transmission to operations centres.

Ultra-rugged computers are de rigueur for the role of forward air control, a role Special Operations teams share with conventional forces. The US Army Common Hardware Software (CHS) programme provided its most rugged--or V3-product, the Handheld Terminal Unit (HTU), to the US Air Force's Tactical Air Control Party modernisation programme. The HTU was the service name given to the Tadiran Communications Tacter 31 ultra-rugged terminal. The Tacter-31 was, for many years, the V3 solution under the CHS-2 contract and was acquired by the US Special Operations Command for a variety of uses. Under CHS-3, a DRS product has been selected for the HTU requirement, which will be the natural successor to the Tacter in US service.

Increased demand for ruggedised computing is in part being driven by the need to push functionality and applications further into the field; those which hitherto have been located at operations centres. Operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq have shown that Socom is making mission rehearsal and planning applications more widely available. One example is the Terrain Expertise SOFviz high-performance 2-D/3-D visualisation software installed in rugged laptops used to support mission planning in the field. Applications such as this are serving to increase demand for the ruggedised products needed to run these programmes in demanding environments.

The greatest impetus for extending computing down to the soldier level are Soldier Modernisation Programmes. The 75th Ranger Regiment was to have received the first iteration of the Land Warrior in 2004. However, a series of problems have prevented the Army going ahead with the first phase of the programme. A number of these problems were related to computing, including connector technology linking computers to sensors and communications that were unreliable. The Army has now opted to deploy the first Land Warrior systems with a conventional Stryker brigade. In parallel to this Socom has a plan to develop a specific Special Operations Warrior SMP ensemble. It is, as yet, unfunded.

The US Special Operations Command has traditionally eschewed PDAs (Personal Digital Assistant) for reasons of security. It is now reportedly examining options to acquire rugged PDAs for its forces. Companies linked with this requirement include TDS and DRS. The General Dynamics Commander Digital Assistant, based on the Hewlett Packard iPAQ, was used by rapidly deployed airborne units during operations in Iraq and has since proliferated to other units. Talla-Tech has also been successful in supplying its Ruggedised Personal Digital Assistant to the Department of Defense for operation in extreme environments.

Despite the American disinclination regarding PDAs, a number of PDA-type devices have nonetheless been deployed. One example of this is the Army Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center, Battlefield Medical Information System-Tactical (Bmis-T). This iPAQ-based system is designed to provide forward deployed US Special Operations medics with a hand-held electronic means of assisting with diagnosis and treatment during point-of-care. Information can be stored prior to operations using a Simple Technologies 128 MB compact flash card with a system battery life supporting missions of up to 72 hours. Field updates to the Bmis-T's database can be achieved through an external communications device, which would enable users to access detailed information from the Army's Composite Health Care System and the Special Operations Forces Health Surveillance Repository.

Providing the user with easy-to-use information and expertise at point-of-use is also provided by the VoxTec Phrase-later, using software developed by Darpa. Not limited to US Special Operations Command use, the semi-ruggedised PDA-type apparatus was first deployed in Afghanistan in 2002. The device is operated by the user first speaking or selecting a phrase. The Phraselator then finds the pre-recorded foreign language equivalent. The Phraselator has been invaluable is questioning people to find hidden weapons caches during patrols in Afghanistan and as a supplement to trained translators.

The requirement for dismounted computing poses the greatest challenge in equipping special forces. These same forces are not, however, limited to this role and require a computing infrastructure in a range of platforms. The Tactronics Crow is also used in the company's Tac-4 systems, which can be deployed on a variety of mobile platforms. It links various situational inputs via a protected Ethernet hub, supporting links to special forces via the in-service Special Operations Command combat net radios to provide a common tactical picture for commanders.

Units on the ground are not the only special forces to receive equipment. The US 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment also uses the Air Warrior ensemble. Now in its Block 3 format, it will also provide all US Air Force aircrew with wearable computing as a mission aid as part of an overall ensemble. Special Operations aircraft also have unique computing requirements. Miltope currently provides the Large Capacity Disk Drive Unit, which is used to support the Special Operations Aircraft Digital Mapping System, for use on the unit's Night Stalker helicopters.

Beneath the waves recent developments have provided combat divers with the means to better carry out beach reconnaissance. The Israeli company Oceana's hand held dive proof GPS devices enable combat divers to plot waypoints. By the end of 2003 ten prototypes had been developed--five of which were being used by the Israel Defence Forces with the remaining five being evaluated by the United States and four Nato countries. The unit has twelve channels supporting up to 500 way-points, twelve hours of battery life and can operate at up to 50 metres. A similar device is the BAE Systems' Debra (Divers Electronic Beach Reconnaissance Aid). The device has an electronic compass to aid grid surveys, is neutrally buoyant in water despite weighing five kg and has a typical battery life of 14 hours. These units were delivered to the British in late 2003.
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Title Annotation:Complete Guide
Author:Baddeley, Adam
Publication:Armada International
Date:Dec 1, 2004
Words:1316
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