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Apps Advance Onto the Frontline

October 5, 2010
By Maryann Lawlor, SIGNAL Online Exclusive
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The U.S. military’s leading agency in creating mind-boggling devices that literally save warfighters’ lives is joining the app generation in a big way. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) initiated its Transformative Apps program in April of this year; by the time the Broad Agency Announcement closed at the end of August, DARPA had been inundated with hundreds of tactical app ideas from places that ranged from companies to soldiers in the field.

Dr. Mari Maeda, program manager of Transformative Apps, explains that the agency is developing numerous tactical applications for future platforms that will range in price from thousands of dollars to tens of thousands of dollars. The work—plus the tremendous leap in commercial wireless device apps—inspired her team to look into apps that will be useful specifically in the battlespace with all of its trials and tribulations.

Although bringing the typical teenager’s tool to the tactical field is in and of itself a thrill, Maeda notes that the part of the program that is most exciting is the apps production process itself. In this experimental stage, warfighters in Afghanistan with SIPRNET access, for example, sent an app idea to the DARPA program; organizations working on the apps turned that idea into an app and got it into the field in a matter of days.

“This is very, very different from the usual multiyear cycle. So the part that we are very excited about is not just the application and the network and the service but also how we’re actually going to identify what kind of app will be useful to the soldier. We want to empower the soldiers. We want to give them the vote. Let them figure out what would be useful to them,” Maeda declares.

As simple as developers may make it seem to create new applications, when the apps will be used in the battlespace, challenges abound. Unlike creating applications for commercial handheld devices where connectivity is reasonably assured, the DARPA team must take into consideration battlespace-specific elements.

For example, the power of many commercial apps lies in the capability to reach back to a large reliable network; not so in the tactical environment where connections come and go. “Your handhelds today are talking to the powerful servers of Google or Amazon. In the tactical environment, you don’t have the luxury of going to the Internet, and you don’t want to go to the Internet because of security,” she notes.

Realizing that they cannot always connect to powerful servers at tactical operations centers (TOCs), warfighters at least will want to be able to rely on a server housed in their vehicles. The idea is to make servers powerful enough to be useful yet small enough to fit into military vehicles, Maeda explains. The possibility of connecting with peers or even to a TOC is not ignored, it is just not relied upon, she adds. “The assumption is that the bandwidth will be limited and the connections are going to be unreliable,” she states.

To address this issue, DARPA has been working with the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, the G-6 and various U.S. Army project management shops that are beginning to create applications with these challenges in mind. Maeda hopes work will continue and increase in this area.

As for the handheld platform itself, the Android was chosen over the iPhone because it features an open-source code, facilitating application development, Maeda explains. One way that the program team currently is addressing the problem of unreliable connectivity is by building apps directly into the Android. For example, commercial language translation apps reach back to a large server that provides the capability. For the tactical environment, the two-way speech translation application would be built into the device itself. Maeda is quick to add that DARPA is not trying to replace human translators; these devices would be the go-to option in a pinch. Various Southwest Asian dialects currently are being tested.

Another on-the-device app that is being examined involves identifying sniper locations. When shot at in the field, the warfighter would be able to use an Android to narrow down the position of the shooter then share that information with peers.

Maps and other imagery also are likely to be featured apps on the warfighters’ Androids. Standard maps would be loaded into the device; this information would be refreshed with data gathered by aerial platforms via laptops when the warfighters return to their TOC. Maeda explains that other mapping information could include descriptions of the populations in certain areas.

The Transformative Apps program is creating a marketplace portal where warfighters will be able to offer their apps ideas and vote on ideas others suggest.