US Military on the Move: Rugged Notebooks Lead the Way
The US military is a military on the move. It also is a military on the computer and the network. Linking those two aspects together are notebook computers that can be taken on patrol as well as used on the flight line, at a command post, or in a field hospital.
But US military’s notebooks are not like everyday laptops. They are built to withstand the harsh conditions of Afghanistan or the demanding conditions of flight-line maintenance. They need to be rugged and able to withstand sand, water, wind, heat, cold, jarring impacts, and various chemicals and fluids.
This article examines the US military’s standards and criteria for rugged notebook computers, the environmental and work environments that the rugged computers must be able to endure, as well as assessments of how rugged computers respond in practice. But first, let’s examine what we mean by the term “rugged.”
Rugged electronic equipment is equipment that needs additional protection because of the environment in which it operates.
There are four categories of rugged electronic equipment: commercial-grade, which has no extra protection; durable, which includes such features as spill-proof keyboards and hard-shell cases; semi-rugged, which conforms to tougher standards than durable but is not made for extreme environments; and fully rugged, which is equipment that conforms to the most stringent standards for extreme environment operation, standards which are contained in US military equipment testing standards MIL-STD 810G [PDF].
The military standard focuses on the design and testing of equipment, such as notebook computers, to determine that they will operate to environmental specifications. The standard specifies chamber test methods intended to replicate conditions in a range of hostile environments. The tests are identified with the standard (MIL-STD-810G), the method number (Method 510.5) and an explanation of the environment (Sand and Dust Testing).
The equipment is tested for a number of different environments, including:
- Water immersion (Method 512.5) – Testing for water resistance is done in a rain chamber that drenches products with jets of water over varying intensities and angles. Fully rugged models are tested for full water immersion.
- Salt and fog (Method 509.5) – Salt and fog can cause electronic equipment to short circuit or rust. Equipment is tested using a 5% saline solution.
- Humidity (Method 507.5) – Extreme humidity causes computers to corrode and malfunction. Equipment is tested with 95% humidity.
- Sand and dust (Method 510.5) – Equipment is tested to resist the effects of dust particles which may penetrate into cracks, seals, and keyboards. The equipment is also tested to determine whether the computer can be stored and operated in blowing sand conditions without experiencing degradation of its performance, effectiveness, reliability and maintainability due to the abrasion/erosion or clogging effect of large, sharp-edged particles.
- Temperature (Method 501.5, 502.5, 503.5) – Equipment is tested at temperatures down to 33 degrees Celsius and up to 71 degrees Celsius, as well as for temperature shock resulting from extreme swings in temperatures.
- Sun exposure (Method 505.5) – Equipment is tested for direct sunlight for 3 to 7 days in a solar chamber.
- Shock and drop testing (Method 516.6) – Equipment is tested to operate under 75 times the force of gravity and dropped from 3 to 4 feet while operating, multiple times.
- Vibration (Method 514.6) – Equipment is tested in standard vehicles and in vibration-prone vehicles such as tanks.
- Low pressure (Method 500.5) – Equipment is tested for low pressure atmosphere, such as experienced at high altitudes or dropping pressure in an aircraft.
Unfortunately, the terminology used by vendors is designed more for marketing than to inform. So the terms “durable” and “semi-rugged” are often used to imply that equipment can withstand harsh conditions when it fact they cannot.
To test vendors claims about rugged notebooks, consulting firm Endpoint Technologies Associates produced a white paper [PDF] in which they surveyed notebooks that were classified as having some degree of ruggedness and tested them in terms of the MIL-STD-810F (predecessor to MIL-STD-810G).
Endpoint tested the following notebooks: Panasonic Toughbook CF-30, CF-19, and CF-52; General Dynamics Itronix GoBook XR-1 and VR-2; Hewlett-Packard EliteBook 6930p; Lenovo ThinkPad T400; and Dell Latitude ATG and XFR.
The laptop computers that passed most or all of the 810F specifications were classified as “rugged” and “rugged plus.” These included the Panasonic Toughbook CF-30 and CF-19, the General Dynamics Itronix GoBook XR-1, and the Dell Latitude XFR.
“Panasonic is the gold standard” in rugged computers, said Roger Kay, president of Endpoint Technologies Associates, in an interview with DID.
“They build their own stuff; they battle test it in their labs in Osaka; they do a solid job…If you want to get really serious – the notebook’s got to operate inside a tank in Saudi Arabia in the summer – then you have to go the full Panasonic route.”
Kay said that according to the failure rates for rugged computers that he has seen, Panasonic is the lowest, in the low single digits after three years. This compares with double digit failure rates for other brands over the same time period.
The white paper estimated that an organization has to pay 3 to 4 times as much for a fully rugged notebook compared to a nonrugged or semi-rugged commercial notebook. As Kay noted:
“That typically isn’t worthwhile for a commercial establishment…The time where it matters is for military or public safety, where it just has to work; it can’t break. That’s the distinction. That is why the fully rugged market is so limited. There are only a few folks that are like that.”
Fully rugged computers for the military usually undergo third-party independent testing. The white paper identified 4 laboratories that perform military specification testing for rugged computers: Cascade TEK in Hillsboro, OR; Environmental Associates in Chatsworth, CA; MET Laboratories in Baltimore, MD; and Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, TX.
“The customer is paying for rugged computer and you only know it’s rugged if it doesn’t break. If it does break, then it wasn’t as rugged as you thought,” Kay said, adding that that is why certification by a third-party lab is important for the military.
For the battlefield, size, weight, and power are the most important attributes for computers, so rugged notebooks need to be portable and powerful.
“Military end users are mobile and face extreme environments, so rugged and reliable notebooks that are easy to transport in a rucksack have become essential to them. Long battery life and daylight-readable screens are also easily overlooked factors that are critical to a military end user,” Jan Ruderman, vice president of government sales for Panasonic Computer Solutions Co. in Secaucus, NJ, told Military & Aerospace Electronics.
Rugged computers are used for many functions on the battlefield beyond typical computer tasks. They can provide combat communications, situational awareness, surveyor mapping, combat medical care, and interrogation of suspected terrorists.
Notebooks enable soldiers to communicate with other unit members, exchange data and update location. For example, the Army uses rugged Panasonic Toughbook computers as a component of its Tactical Local Area Network (TACLAN), which provides IT capability on the battlefield.
To provide situational awareness, notebooks can be outfitted with cameras and graphic locator software that provides photos and maps of surroundings. In addition, they can receive data feeds from UAVs and satellites to provide a comprehensive SA picture, as well as control UAVs and unmanned vehicles and robots.
Rugged notebooks assist military surveyors to map battlefield terrain to give commanders and pilots accurate coordinates for GPS-guided weapons and other location-dependent weaponry. Surveyors need considerable computer memory to draft a precise topographical chart. In addition, processing speeds in notebooks enable soldiers to generate maps from data collected while on patrol.
Rugged notebooks can be used in combat medical facilities to manage and update medical information on patients, as well as obtain information on appropriate emergency treatment. They can even be used for telemedicine applications, in which medical images of the patient are sent back to a hospital for medical advice and direction.
When integrated with the Biometric Automated Toolset, rugged computers can be used to provide fingerprint analysis and background checks on suspected terrorists.
Outside of combat, what are other environments in which rugged notebooks would be useful to the military? One use for rugged notebooks is assistant aviation mechanics on the flight line.
Notebooks on the flight line need to endure harsh conditions, such as the presence of chemicals, oil, and grease. Notebooks can be used to store technical information and provide instructions on maintenance, inspection, and checkout of aircraft.
According to a study [PDF] by the Air Force Research Lab (AFRL), notebook computers for flight-line use are assessed based on 7 criteria: battery life, weight, size, screen, ruggedness, environmental endurance, and performance,
To extend battery life, the AFRL recommended the use of a lithium ion battery in the notebook. “The longer the battery charge lasts, the more suitable it will be,” the study said.
Regarding the screen, the study stressed the importance of an easy to use, but durable display.
“The more hostile the environment is, the more important it is to have a good visible display, one that is readable in direct sunlight. Likewise, at night, a back lit keyboard would be desirable. Within this category for consideration in the notebook ergonomics, is the touchpad.”
AFRL had this to say about the ruggedness criteria for the notebook:
“Mobility of the notebook computer is another deciding factor. Rugged notebooks have a tendency to be heavy, i.e., 10 to 15 lbs. Thus, the need for a carry handle. Not all the notebooks [examined in the study] had handles, but included a carrying case, which may restrict the maintenance operator or become a hazard around the aircraft. It is evident that the more rugged the notebook construction is the higher probability that it will survive rough handling.”
The study separated environmental endurance from ruggedness, although the environmental criteria are included in the military specifications.
“Operating and storage temperature varied widely between units, while all of the units included in this study were resistant to water, dust, dirt and spills, thus, part of the definition of “ruggedness”. They also have high-resolution displays that are readable in direct sunlight, and are environmentally compatible to resist rain, oil, grease, dust and extreme temperatures. This is typical of the environments that combat aircraft flight maintenance crews experience on the flight line.”
In fact, the Air Force has announced plans to purchase up to 40,000 rugged notebooks – at a cost of $3,000 to $4,000 each – and convert 65,000 paper technical orders (TOs) into digital format by FY 2012 to improve flight-line maintenance and operations. TOs provide mechanics with step-by-step instructions for repairing and maintaining aircraft.
The Air Force explains the benefits of switching from paper to digital TOs.
“TOs and other technical documents are an essential part of a mechanic’s job. Mechanics have to follow the documents step by step for everything they do, even procedures they may have performed many times before. Previously, mechanics would go to a library to get a paper TO, use it to do the job at hand, and then return to get another one for the next job. With e-tools, mechanics have the laptop on the aircraft and can instantly look up any technical order. Among the advantages – mechanics can be assured they are using the most up-to-date TOs because updates are fed to the computers automatically.”
Each service has there own approach to procuring rugged notebooks. For example, the Army’s system for procuring notebook computers is the consolidated buy (CB) program run by the Computer Hardware, Enterprise Software and Solutions (CHESS) office.
After deciding what the minimum specifications should be for each computer equipment category, the Army’s Information Technology E-Commerce and Commercial Contracting Center (ITEC-4) – CHESS’s contracting activity – requests proposals from vendors. The proposals are evaluated, and products and prices are posted to the CHESS website.
Army customers use the website to compare the CB products. Customers work with their local contracting offices to place their orders. They can also place orders on-line via the CHESS IT e-mart or by ordering directly from the vendor.
While the CB program provides the process, contract vehicles provide the means by which equipment is ordered. The primary contract vehicle for computer equipment is the Army Desktop and Mobile Computing-2 (ADMC-2) contract.
Through the ADMC-2 contract, CHESS offers 5 ruggedized notebooks for purchase: Dell Latitude E6410 ATG (vendor Telos), Dell Latitude E6400 XFR (vendor CDW-G), Getac B300 (vendor NCS), the Panasonic CF-19 (vendor Emtec Federal), and Panasonic Toughbook 31 (vendor ITG).
- Gregg Kelley, E-tools Program Manager, Robins Air Force Base, GA, tel: 478-926-1110, email gregg.kelley @ robins.af.mil
- Roger Kay, president, Endpoint Technologies Associates, tel: 508-720-3469, email: k @ ndpta.com
- Jan Ruderman, vice president of government sales, Panasonic Computer Solutions, tel: 415-365-8537, email jan_ruderman @ us.panasonic.com
- Patrick White, vice president of strategic marketing, General Dynamics Itronix; tel: 954-846-3400
- Susan Crumrine, vice president of automation and data systems division, Southwest Research Institute, tel: 210-522-2089, susan.crumrine @ swri.org
- Joan Pesanello, Consolidated Buy Product Leader, CHESS, phone: 732-427-6784, DSN 987-6784; email: joan.pesanello @ us.army.mil
- DoD – MIL-STD 810G for Rugged Electronic Equipment [PDF]
- Motorola – What Does It Mean to be Rugged? [PDF]
- Army-technology.com (Jan 6/11) – Tough Tech: Ruggedised Computers and Laptops
- Washington Technology (2010) – Measuring Durability in Rugged Notebooks
- Military & Aerospace Electronics (Dec 15/10) – Rugged computers in aerospace and defense applications must work reliably in harsh operating conditions
- Military & Aerospace Electronics (June 2010) – Warfighters on the digital battlefield require robust information technology for secure, reliable, real-time access to mission-critical information
- Army-technology.com (Feb 11/10) – Resilient, Rugged and Robust: The Laptop Revolution
- Army MC4 (April 2009) – The Gateway newsletter: Discussion of rugged and semirugged laptops
- Military & Aerospace Electronics (Jan 4/09) – Warfighters demand greater processing power and reliability in rugged battlefield computers
- Endpoint Technology Associates (2008) – Redefining Rugged: Assessing the Spectrum of Durability in the Notebook Market [PDF]
- Armed Forces International (Aug 3/06) – Rugged Computing Plays a Critical Role for Land Warriors in the Network-Centric Battle Space
- Military & Aerospace Electronics (Jan 1/04) – Rugged computers become everyday battlefield equipment
- Marine Corps (April 2003) – Field Report, Marine Corps Systems Command Liaison Team, Central Iraq
- AFRL (2000) – Network Centricity and the Flight-Line Mechanic