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 News Article

DARPA Pioneers Tactical Mobile Devices for Soldiers

By Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Dec. 11, 2013 – For the first time in any war, U.S. soldiers on foot patrol across Afghanistan can use secure mobile handheld devices and infantry-tailored apps to access digital maps, set up and share routes, execute sudden mission changes and store critical information for use back inside the wire.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
An International Security Assistance Force soldier on patrol in a remote forward location in Afghanistan uses a secure mobile handheld device. Photo courtesy of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

The capability, established step by exacting step over three years by experts at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and with feedback from soldiers themselves, is the work of a program called Transformative Applications.

TransApps made possible the connection to a network over secure military radios of these hardened Android smartphones or tablets. A set of mission-planning tools can overlay user-defined data directly onto high-resolution digital maps already on the Android devices.

Dismounted patrols and company intelligence support teams are key users of the devices, which include custom-modified Android operating systems and Linux kernels, as well as security-stack-supporting data-at-rest protection, data-in-transit protection, authentication, and app vetting and control, DARPA officials said.

The TransApps program seeks to develop a library of secure military applications that are as easy to use as commercial smartphone apps and that troops can access on their military mobile devices. The program also wants to establish a business model for the apps that bypasses bureaucratic delays in acquiring and fielding new technology.

Doran Michels, DARPA’s TransApps program manager, briefed reporters about the program during a Dec. 3 teleconference. A major DARPA effort in the program began in 2010, when smartphones were proliferating in the commercial sector, he said.

The agency wanted to “see if it would be feasible to leverage these commercial products to address the enduring situational awareness capability gap” between higher military echelons, he said, who during wars had increasingly impressive intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities inside the wire while ground troops outside the wire had few tools for sharing information or understanding their battlefield environment.

As a hardware platform, DARPA chose Android devices, which operate on an open system they could modify for their needs, Michels said.

“The first thing we needed to do to modify the devices was to address strict security requirements that are inherent to taking mission content to the battlefield, … and many of the approved mechanisms for securing mobile devices don't apply in a battlefield environment,” he added.

The practice of mobile device management assumes the network always will be available and the devices always will be on the network, Michels said, so the devices can be actively managed for security. “But in a tactical environment, soldiers are routinely without comms or they're in a patchy comms environment,” he added, “so we needed security to be resident on the devices.”

Also in that environment, he explained, high-resolution digital maps can’t be downloaded in real time, so they must be resident and already configured on the handheld devices.

When soldiers do connect to a network, Michels said, it's not over commercial wifi or cellular. “It's over secure military radios,” he explained, “so we had to make sure that we could adapt to those waveforms and also constrain our data throughput appropriately.”

Most importantly, the program had to respond to soldier requirements, he said. “We wanted soldiers to drive the development of the applications so we knew the apps could evolve in real time with dynamic mission requirements,” Michels said.

In 2011, the TransApps team began working with an infantry company, making apps based on their requirements. Initially, the soldiers wanted apps focused on high-resolution map imagery in the palms of their hands, Michels said, with interactive features that could help them navigate or follow their mission plans or track environmental elements.

“Once we had done that, the next thing they wanted was to be able to interact with the maps in a more complex way,” the program manager said. “We saw that the handhelds made great collection platforms during their mission, and … they wanted to be able to recompile critical elements of the mission and get those back into the system so other people could benefit.”

Over a period of months, the team created apps tailored for infantry soldiers. Once they had a suite of apps in fairly high demand, they scaled up quickly, Michels said, growing from enough apps for a company to enough for a battalion to enough for a brigade, and then enough for all brigades in Afghanistan.

Over 18 months, the program went from zero to 3,000 users, he added, supporting the entire Army in Afghanistan.

“While we were scaling, we weren’t just propagating out the capability that we’d established,” the program manager said. “We were actually improving it in real time as we went, so it was growing and getting better.”

The suite now includes more than 50 applications and is growing, Michels said, adding that the team recently created an app in partnership with the National Park Service called SMART Triage. The app lets unit-level medics or first responders quickly document first aid for injured personnel, especially in a mass-casualty catastrophe, to effectively and accurately log injuries and treatments.

SMART Triage uses a 3-D mannequin that can be manipulated and marked up with injuries and annotated with things such as medications given, he said.

Another app, called TransHeat, has custom algorithms built in just for soldiers. The algorithms passively process travel routes and let the soldiers know by turning the routes different colors how often they’ve used each route, Michels explained. The app can help the soldiers take different routes and avoid becoming victims of roadside bombers or ambushes.

“Imagine having access to a developer who supported your organization and you could say, ‘Would you consider making a feature that can give me this output?’ And we try to be very responsive to that for soldiers. We understand that change is kind of a permanent element in their environment,” the program manager said.

Even for DARPA, populating what Michels calls the “very new landscape” of tactical mobile with processes and standards for battlefield-ready security mechanisms, exchanging high-resolution digital imagery and many other leading-edge elements can be a solitary undertaking.

“A lot of people tend to think that security for mobile is a given. We look at corollaries in enterprise [computing] where … we've got mobile device management,” Michels said, adding that there were no maps for creating offline security for the handheld devices TransApps worked with.

“We had to develop a multitier solution that was very robust, … and it's actually a very popular solution now that has been adopted by a number of other organizations within DOD and the federal government,” he said.

Mobile device management, as it is known today and used in enterprise computing for the kind of mobile devices used by the Defense Department’s workforce, for example, is not possible in a tactical environment, the program manager added. In the tactical model, he said, “networks, if they exist, may be unreliable or controlled by the adversary. Networking over military radios requires special adaptation, and many users' handheld devices are often offline for weeks despite constant use in a standalone mode,” Michels said.

“The enterprise device's security comes from the network, but the security of the tactical device must reside within [the device] organically,” he added. “The two paradigms can't converge until a secure, reliable wireless network exists for tactical environments.”

The TransApps team had to create its own process and promote a governmentwide standard to support the capability it needs on the handheld devices for high-resolution digital imagery, which for tactical mobile can’t be pushed over a network, as is done in the consumer world, Michels said.

On one side of the problem are many high-resolution imagery products that are current and critically needed, he explained. On the other side is the operational community that relies on such products for survival and mission effectiveness.

In between is a chasm where the imagery products, collected by different platforms, have no fluid mechanisms by which to migrate quickly from the producers to the user community, he said.

During a recent meeting called the Mobile Imagery Technical Exchange, community members and stakeholders discussed this and other challenges related to sharing imagery. Attendees included representatives from DARPA, the Army Geospatial Center, the Naval Research Laboratory, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and others, Michels said.

“We have a number of excellent relationships now with organizations like the AGC, NGA and NRL,” he added, “and we would not have been successful without these thriving partnerships.”

Today, Michels said, DARPA’s focus is on transition.

“DARPA wants meaningful capabilities to be the yield here,” he added. “All the services are pursuing tactical mobile capabilities. So we spend a lot of time working with those partners and within their organizational and funding constraints to figure out how they can leverage what DARPA has achieved.”

(Follow Cheryl Pellerin on Twitter: @PellerinAFPS)


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