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A New Approach for Handheld Devices in the Military

Many people today carry handheld computing devices to support their business, entertainment, and social needs in commercial networks. The Department of Defense (DoD) is increasingly interested in having soldiers carry handheld computing devices to support their mission needs in tactical networks. Not surprisingly, however, conventional handheld computing devices (such as iPhone or Android smartphones) for commercial networks differ in significant ways from handheld devices for tactical networks. For example, conventional devices and the software that runs on them do not provide the capabilities and security needed by military devices, nor are they configured to work over DoD tactical networks with severe bandwidth limitations and stringent transmission security requirements. This post describes exploratory research we are conducting at the SEI to (1) create software that allows soldiers to access information on a handheld device and (2) program the software to tailor the information for a given mission or situation.

To motivate the need for tactical handheld devices, imagine a U.S. soldier on patrol, deployed abroad, and walking into an unfamiliar village. Many pieces of information would be useful to that soldier in that situation. For example, it would be useful to know who the village elders are and to have pictures to identify them. It would also be useful to access information about previous IED attacks or reports detailing the results of other contact that soldiers have had with villagers, and whether any friendly villagers speak English. We face the following challenges when creating software for tactical handheld computing devices that can provide this information:

  • Developing applications that can support the full range of military missions. In recent years, soldiers have provided humanitarian assistance to victims of natural disasters in Haiti and countries in Asia, patrolled our country's borders, protected global waterways from piracy, and performed many types of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. These missions are sufficiently diverse that a one-size-fits-all software solution is not practical. For example, consider the different goals of clearing a route in a combat zone versus delivering humanitarian supplies in a relief effort or the different information required to protect from IED attacks versus treat a critically ill child. Not only is different information required, but also the rules for sharing it can vary. In a combat environment, security concerns require limiting access, while information in a relief mission may be shareable with non-governmental organizations responding to the crisis.
  • Processing large amounts of data available through the rapid computerization and internetworking of various military missions. For example, the military employs hundreds of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that generate large amounts of data. There are also increases in the number of sensors, such as auditory, biological, chemical, and nuclear, that are network-enabled. All the data generated from these devices makes it hard to pinpoint the right information for a given mission and situation.

Our goal is to ensure the capabilities provided on tactical handheld computing devices are flexible enough to allow solders to control the amount and type of data that they receive and adaptive enough to meet the needs of particular missions. To achieve this goal we are exploring the integration of end-user programming techniques, active data filtering and formatting, and confidence-building strategies. End-user programming techniques enable soldiers to program software on tactical handheld devices without requiring them to be professional software developers. Filtering incoming information and displaying it in intuitive formats helps avoid inundating soldiers on patrol with too much data. Confidence-building strategies promote trust that applications programmed by soldiers work correctly and safely. We are currently developing software for Android devices, but the fundamental concepts are applicable to other mobile platforms as well.

A key concern is designing software that has an intuitive and simple to use interface since the soldiers customizing these capabilities are not programmers; they are war fighters. The software we build must therefore help them readily find and assemble the types of information they need. It should reduce the soldier's workload by filling in (auto-complete) as much information for the soldier as possible. The software should require soldiers to learn only a few different types of screens (for example, screens for entering data and for establishing filters should be substantially the same.) In addition, confidence-building feedback should be integrated into the interface so that soldiers are sure that what they build will work and are informed early if it will not.

Our work also focuses on ensuring that the information--whether from central command or a local unit--makes its way quickly and efficiently to the handheld computing device used by soldiers. For example, user-programmable data filtering allows soldiers to specify what information is important. Likewise, optimized protocol implementations ensure this information is exchanged quickly.

Last year, we conducted a research project that involved taking a service-oriented architecture (SOA) approach to provide real time situational awareness data to Android smartphones. We worked with soldiers through the Naval Post-Graduate School's Center for Network Innovation and Experimentation (CENETIX) to test our applications. They told us what capabilities they need, and what did not work. These collaborations tie our work firmly into both the research and military communities and keep us focused on providing a useful and cutting-edge capability. In addition to continuing our collaboration with CENETIX, we are working with Dr. Brad Myers of the Carnegie Mellon University Human Computer Interaction Institute. Dr. Myers is helping us define an appropriate interface for soldiers to use the handheld software in the challenging situations they face.

This is an ongoing research project and I will be providing periodic updates on its progress throughout the year.

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