Military computers have come a long way in the years since they were first deployed; initially little more than standard computer hardware housed in a metal box for shock protection, and used to manage communication systems. Modern military IT systems provide many more functions including secure communications, surveillance and mapping.
Processor speeds now allow laptops to generate rendered maps from patrol data and relay them back to HQ, but that's no use at all if the soldiers can't read the screen in the sun, if it freezes or overheats in the climate, or the hard drive crashes when the device is dropped.
To get an idea of the conditions, we spoke off-the-record to a serving UK officer with recent combat experience who is currently working with the MoD / Atlas DII programme's Overtask project to extend DII into Afghanistan. DII, and earlier MoD computing initiatives, use commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) rugged systems such as the Panasonic Toughbook range of laptops. These were intended for use in relatively benign base environments, not for soldiers to carry on patrol. Unfortunately in recent campaigns the bases have been challenging, featuring extremes of temperature, dust and incoming fire.
Overtask also uses server systems, and these fare rather better. Infrastructure team leader Steve Pickering told us: "...the Overtask system currently deployed in theatre is not hardened, beefed up or specially commissioned in any way. Our equipment is COTS but installed in flight cases.
To date this hasn't caused any really big issues with regard to reliability or functionality. As you can appreciate the current theatre of operations is not the most beneficial to IT equipment, the hardware we have delivered so far has provided a reliable engine to power the applications required by the end user."
Not everyone is happy with industrial-strength laptops and servers in flight cases. FMV, the Swedish Defence Materiel Administration, is considering purchasing properly ruggedised computers. Stefan Wikström, product manager at FMV, told us: "There are still some questions to consider, but it should be possible to have military standard interface in the computer chassis. For screen functions such as readability in sunlight there are no good minimum values in the military standard 810."
"Ruggedisation" of electronic equipment has been a continuous process since the early days of military radio. The principles are well known; the case should be strong enough to resist physical damage (though not too heavy), it should be sealed to prevent ingress of dust and water, the internal components should be mounted in such a way as to resist coming loose from shock or vibration and the components themselves should be able to withstand such treatment. Components that are not sufficiently robust need to be held in place by shock / vibration-resistant mountings.
Applied to computers, physical strength with lightness is usually provided by magnesium or aluminium alloy cases, motherboards may be thicker and stronger than in COTS IT, components are fixed more rigidly to them, with glue and/or mechanical fixings supplementing the solder, ports are provided with seals (and limited in number), screens may be made from toughened glass or covered in polycarbonate. Cooling is a particular problem, especially for equipment that is intended for use outdoors. Computer cooling fans draw in dust, and in the field computers are exposed to water, sand, mud, snow and more.
Battlefield computers must dissipate all their heat through the case, and with increasingly powerful equipment in smaller enclosures that problem isn't getting any easier. Low temperatures can be a problem too; hard-drives are not designed to operate below 0°C. At lower temperatures the lubricant used on the disk bearings stiffens up and the disk won't spin.
Peter Molyneux, UK business development director of Getac, explained that systems designed for extreme cold are fitted with heater elements, and sensors on the hard drive. On boot, the BIOS checks the disk temperature and if necessary switches on the heater, then the rest of the boot process stalls until the disk is warm enough to operate correctly.
Ruggedised or fully rugged?
It's an unfortunate fact of life that technical terms are often devalued by marketing people with product to shift using words in a cavalier fashion. "Rugged" and "ruggedised" have suffered this way. We discussed this with Molyneux and DRS tactical systems programme managers John Barbadaes and Bob Graham. The companies exemplify two different approaches to the problem.
DRS takes COTS systems and applies "ruggedisation" technology to them. Typically this means retaining the standard motherboard and components, but applying adhesives and other strengthening to prevent components shaking loose. The board is mounted in a custom-built enclosure using DRS's own mounting technology to prevent shock damage.
DRS also manufactures ruggedised LCD screens. It takes a COTS screen (industrial grade not a notebook screen) and mounts it in a metal enclosure using shock-absorbing mounts. Where the customer requires impact resistance on the screen, it can be laminated with toughened glass and/or polycarbonate.
DRS has been in the military equipment ruggedisation business for 20 years, and has built up a huge amount of experience. Getac has a similarly long history, but a different approach. Its systems are designed from scratch as rugged computers. They use COTS components, but they are mounted on rigid motherboards Getac designs itself, which enables the company to design secure mountings for the heavier components.
Input devices are always a problem – a COTS keyboard can be irreparably damaged by spilled liquid – for military use keyboards have to be dust and watertight. Or you can borrow smartphone technology and dispense with the keyboard entirely.
An entirely different approach has been adopted by Lockheed-Martin with its Monax communications system.
Starting from the premise that smartphones are cheap enough to be considered disposable, Monax provides the means to use them securely on a military network. The Monax Lynx "sleeve" can be adapted to suit any phone currently available or likely to appear in future by adding a simple plastic carrier. Lynx connects to the Monax XG base station infrastructure on ground or airborne platforms, offering uninterrupted service to soldiers in the field. The phone itself is afforded some protection by the rubberised coating on the Lynx, it isn't "ruggedised" in the traditional sense.
At the other end of the scale are base stations and servers mounted in ships, aircraft and vehicles of various types. David Lippincott, chief technologist of Chassis Plans explains how his company produces ruggedised server systems to meet military customers' requirements: "Our customers come along with a 'box of parts' or a specification and say, for example, 'these need to go to Iraq'. We then either take something from our range that is suitable, or we design and build a custom case."
Typical Chassis Plans systems are 2U or 4U deployable systems that are frequently mounted in vehicles. Built by Titan Corp, the JRE communications system includes a Chassis Plans computer in each transit case.
Inside a Chassis Plans system are COTS motherboards, processors and hard drives. It doesn't use military standard components, but does choose those known to have long-term product support. Chassis Plans chooses chipsets and processors from the Intel Embedded "roadmap" that lays down how long they will be available and how long they will be supported.
Chassis Plans also produces rugged LCD screens for use in military vehicles. These are based on COTS screens, but housed in rugged surrounds. Each case is machined from two pieces of solid aluminium and the screen is bonded with two layers of toughened glass,.
Not getting easier
Civilian and military personnel expect a great deal from computers these days. Miniaturisation of components and increasing sophistication of software have made it possible to squeeze a lot of power into a small space, but making a computer that can survive in tough battle conditions remains as challenging as it always was.
This article was first published in our sister publication Defence and Security Systems International.