The warfighter couldn’t take it anymore. His team’s mission was to sweep villages, collect fingerprints, photograph irises, and compare these biometric indicators against a registry of known insurgents. Unfortunately, his assigned handheld biometric device lacked the ability to connect to off-site databases. The fact that the warfighter had to rely on the incomplete information in the device’s onboard memory was bad enough, but it enraged him even further, that the darn thing was so slow. Verifying the identity of a single man sometimes took as long as 45 minutes. A sweep of a small village took all day. This annoyed the villagers, and sapped the warfighter’s team of their mobility, which placed them in danger.

A warfighter uses a small, ruggedized, hand-held computer to check strategic data before carrying out his mission.
Disgusted, the warfighter threw the handheld onto a mound of broken biometric equipment (no one has the security clearance to repair them; mounds of broken biometric devices are supposedly found all over Iraq). He got a scanner for the fingerprints and a digital camera to photograph the irises. To process the biometric data, he decided to use a laptop that was Biometric Automated Tools (BAT) compatible, could connect to the Automated Biometrics Identification System (ABIS), and had a CPU powerful enough to process the large files. He was in Special Forces, which meant that he needed his hands free, so he sewed the laptop into his uniform, an extreme example of a “wearable computer.”

I heard this story last year from a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). I have never been able to confirm it, and it may be apocryphal. Still, it impressed me, because it illustrated many of the challenges facing front-line computing, including:

Battlefield connectivity: Frontline soldiers want information and they want it now. In the old days, information went strictly to the “back-end,” i.e. headquarters. Now, data must flow quickly to the “front end,” the frontlines. It makes no sense to have a sluggish biometric device that cannot connect to offsite databases in real time. “Remember that suspicious guy we ran into yesterday? We just got a match on his fingerprints and he’s an insurgent. Do you think he’s still in that village?” The challenge of delivering connectivity to the battlefield is sometimes called “The Last Tactical Mile.”

Data explosion: Like video images—the signature data package of modern war— biometric files are enormously large. To process them in real time, the computer needs a CPU faster than the typical ARM-type processor found in many mobile handhelds.

Form factor: Who wants to run around in a uniform with a laptop sewn into it? Not your average infantryman who already carries 80 lbs. The lighter, and smaller the computer, the better.

Power: The soldier in the above example will have to carry a lot of batteries for the notoriously power-hungry laptop. Form factor, power needs, and logistical bottlenecks are some of the reasons why so many military Request For Proposals (RFPs) have strict re - quirements for “SWaP”(Size, Weight and Power).

Ruggedness and reliability: Repairing computing platforms in the field is a major headache. Not only is it a logistical burden, but it is further complicated by security considerations. Also, a mission critical computer that can’t stand the hard realities of combat can actually put warfighters at risk.

AMREL’s ROCKY DB6 rugged handheld computer running the Windows 7 operating system.
Interoperability: The handheld de vice’s inability to work with biometric databases and programs is symptomatic of the numerous dedicated platforms that have some computing capabilities. There are computing platforms for targeting, robotic control, counter-mortar radar systems, sensor management, sensitive site exploitation, gas detection, testing, and so forth. What they all have in common is that virtually none of them work together. This has lead to a computer population explosion that challenges logistics, necessitates in creased training, and weighs down the already overburdened warfighter. I once heard one exasperated warfighter exclaim, “For Heaven’s sake! Don’t send us more computers!”

The search for the ideal front-line computing platform has generated several broad categories of approaches. One is the much-publicized initiative by the US Army to introduce smartphones. Small, light, and power-thrifty, their SWaP is highly desirable for a mobile soldier. Famous for the number and flexibility of their applications, one phone can be used for many purposes. Cheap enough to be considered disposable, smartphones, in theory, need no support for repair. I’m not sure anyone in the military will admit it, but I suspect that one reason the military has taken such a shine to cellular phones is the effectiveness that Al Qaeda and other insurgent groups have had in using them.

However, the smartphone is a partial solution at best for front-line computing. For one thing, like other small form factors, such as PDAs, smartphones can only support weak processors. Although developers have been successful in pushing the limits of what a smartphone can do, it is hard to imagine them running the kind of data-heavy applications that were mentioned earlier. Furthermore, virtually all current programming would have to be rewritten for this platform.

Another difficulty of smartphones is that their super-light form factor is the antithesis of “ruggedness.” Yes, they can be replaced economically, but a soldier doesn’t want that chore in the middle of a firefight.

Connectivity is also a problem. The remote highlands of Waziristan are not known for their extensive network of cellular towers. The military has been quite creative in developing mobile cellular networks mounted on trucks, and even Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), but this limitation remains fundamental.

The most formidable challenge facing widespread deployment of smartphones is security. The open-platform software that makes possible all those wonderful apps, also makes the smartphone eminently hackable. Military spokesmen often cite security as the number one problem for smartphones. End-to-end encryption software will help, but the successful implementation remains uncertain.

Still, the military is forging ahead with smartphones. The Army just announced the tentative adoption of the Android OS for the Joint Battle Command- Platform, its version of the ruggedized smartphone.

A second approach to distributing computing power to the front-line is much more promising. A few companies have developed small form-factor computing platforms using a new generation of processors (see table for a partial listing). These powerful processors can run the same programs as the ones found in a laptop, but utilize only a fraction of the energy.

One example of this new breed of powerful handhelds is AMREL’s ROCKY DB6. It uses an Intel Atom processor, which gives it a substantially longer battery life than a laptop, but allows it to support the same programming, such as Windows 7 and Linux operating systems. Weighing less than 2 pounds, its compact form can easily slide into a cargo pocket. Unlike a smartphone, it has multiple options for connectivity including WLAN. The DB6 is completely open-platform, and it is independently certified for the ruggedness standards of MIL-STDs 810G and 461F. Unlike smartphones, it fully meets the FIPS 140-2 encryption standard, so security is not a problem.

Pogo pins allow a variety of application modules to be easily integrated into the DB6. A solid-state biometric module has already been developed.

While the DB6 may not be the answer to all the problems of the “Last Tactical Mile,” it does point the way to its eventual solution. For one thing, if the soldier described at the beginning of this article had access to a biometrically modified DB6, he would not have been forced to sew a laptop into his uniform. To get the same computing power and connectivity, all he would have had to do is slip the DB6 into his pocket.

This article was written by William Finn, Senior Copywriter and Editor, AMREL (El Monte, CA). For more information, Click Here .

Defense Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the April, 2012 issue of Defense Tech Briefs Magazine.

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