Thinking Tech

U.S. military enlists smartphones, iPads

Posting in Architecture

Detecting enemy targets and rescuing war hostages. Yup, there may soon be an app for that.

With the high stakes involved in military warfare, the armed forces are often equipped with the most advanced technologies that researchers have to offer. So it may be surprising to hear that the U.S. Army is now integrating into their operations some very civilian gadgetry.

For instance, a unit from the 82nd Airborne Division recently carried out a military drill at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, using Android smartphones. Paratroopers swarmed a mock village in a coordinated effort to capture an enemy target, a challenging mission made more seamless through the use of voice, data and images to quickly relay vital information to team members, ranking leaders and command centers.

"What I watched with interest today was the ability to take pictures of high-value targets, immediately provide them to the company or to the battalion command post," said Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army's vice chief of staff. "I saw the ability when a soldier is wounded to take a picture of the wound and to pass that to the doctors, so that medics can make sure that they are treating the Soldier in the appropriate way, given the wound that he has received. So there are many, many applications of this."

Wihile over at the Pentagon, officials have hired Harris, a video technology firm, to create an app for Apple's iPad and other tablets that would allow soldiers to remotely control cameras aboard Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV). As the drones uncover the location of enemy weapons and hideouts, the visual data can be uploaded instantly to an armed forces network so that commanders can make better informed tactical decisions on the fly.

Instead of developing military devices with the same capabilities, officials say that adapting smartphones and tablets for combat situations has certain key advantages. While similar military-grade equipment can cost upwards of thousands of dollars, a ruggedized iPad can be replaced for about 600 dollars. Also, soldiers wouldn't need much training since many are already familiar with the technology

"We got a five- or ten-minute class," said Specialist Hao Bui. "If you know how to use a phone, it's pretty simple."

During their exercise, soldiers stationed at Fort Bragg tested the Joint Battle Command-Platform (JBC-P Handheld) app and the Tactical Ground Reporting (TIGR Mobile) app. The JBC-P app utilizes GPS technology to locate and track friendly forces as they move across the battlefield. These forces are represented as blue icons on a map, which can also be used to plot enemies or warn their teammates of other hidden hazards. The TIGR app enabled users to input, retrieve as well as share relevant photos and tactical information.

Specialist Randy Fite, who served in Iraq, said the JBC-P app would have been a big help in urban combat situations where team members tend to get scattered.

With the GPS tracking the blue forces, "I don't have to radio back to the truck to see where another squad is at and where they're moving to. I can just pull out my phone and look at it," Fite said. "Usually I'm running to my guys, running back to the squad leader, running back to my guys, relaying information. This way, it's just right there on me and I can just go to town."

John Delay, director of architectures for emerging business at Harris, believes the versatility of these devices opens them up for a wide range of tactical uses, even beyond the scope of what the military has explored so far.

In an interview with Computerworld:

Harris also envisions such things as a soldier at a military checkpoint conducting a video interrogation of a suspect with a standard iPhone or Android phone, then uploading that video to a back-end system where the subject's face could be analyzed with facial recognition software. In the same way, photos could be quickly taken of vehicles and licenses for comparison with historical data, Delay said.

The video capabilities of inexpensive smartphones and tablets are pushing defense and public safety authorities to change their thinking about technology, Delay argued. "They are realizing that the media and entertainment industry are going faster than they can go, and for the first time in history, commercial developers are ahead, so they are looking to adapt those technologies," Delay said.

Photo: U.S. Army

Related on SmartPlanet:

Tuan Nguyen

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Tuan C. Nguyen is a freelance science journalist based in New York City. He has written for the U.S. News and World Report, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC News, AOL, Yahoo! News and LiveScience. Formerly, he was reporter and producer for the technology section of ABCNews.com. He holds degrees from the University of California Los Angeles and the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure