In the civilian and commercial worlds, having actionable information and function at your fingertips through apps on your smartphone is now standard – banking, tracking fitness, making dinner reservations, managing shopping lists. In the military, the ability to use a handheld device to even track battery life on critical equipment is a luxury.
But it's a luxury that's becoming more common. Increasingly, troops on the ground, even at the tactical edge, are able to tap mobile applications for a variety of different uses, whether it's mapping and positioning in GPS-denied environments, interacting with a Raven unmanned aerial vehicle or monitoring and prioritizing energy use of battery-run equipment.
However, it's not as simple as logging into the iTunes app store or the Google Play store and downloading the app of choice. These are devices and apps that have to run in austere environments with limited connectivity, so users and decision-makers have to weigh the significance of moving information over the device against the constraints of a limited tactical network.
"The bandwidth on front line is much less robust than at home, where we have great wifi and 4G cellular…for the soldier at the front line there isn't really a big enterprise app store I can reach back to," said Osie David, a chief engineer for the Command, Power and Integration Directorate in the Army's Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center. "So that changes perspectives in tactical apps we build for the Army. We have to consider things like what's the data transmission rate to make it sure works over tactical radio, not over 4G? And you're working in chaotic environment, so you have to consider the human factors — is it going to distract the user, is it going to make noise, is it going to generate light at nighttime? So our constraints are different than the constraints of most users."
At CERDEC, officials are working on research and development for tactical needs for the next three to 10 years out, David said. The overall strategy is to give soldiers a common environment regardless of whether they are at a command post, home station, in a Humvee or dismounted in the theater.
CERDEC has done experiments with apps over 4G — something the Army is studying how to get to a battlefield network. But for now "we have to keep it at the lowest common denominator," working with existing infrastructure, he said.
"As we look at [the current] tactical environment…what's the best way to send imagery across the field in the battlespace so it's not duplicated [and] not chewing up bandwidth?" David said. "We're trying to take a holistic look in terms of data, the actual devices, the network and what the commander and end-user need to see. Because they all have to work together to produce a good, holistic solution for the Army."
So far the Army has demonstrated a soldier app portal, showing what a potential app store for the tactical environment might look like, how apps might be managed, how they could be delivered to soldiers and how they could be provisioned to devices, David said.
They've also developed an in-house tactical marketplace — essentially an app store for the tactical environment, connecting to the company, brigade and battalion levels, he added.
As for the apps themselves, the Army is making progress, including fielding some apps to Nett Warrior, the service's integrated situational awareness system for dismounted use on the ground using smart devices.
One of those apps is an intelligent forms data collection capability that allows users to create custom forms on an as-needed basis.
"Rather than have developers build all the apps we need, if a particular event happened in the theater that we couldn't predict, [and] the commander says we need to start collecting data on water sources – here's a standard form to do that," David said "Soldiers can create a digital form as an app that they can then distribute throughout their phones. You're now able to have it digitally so it's more accurate, you're able to distribute it faster and you're able to have better situational awareness."
CERDEC's branch for position, navigation and timing is looking at app solutions for better position and timing in GPS-denied areas, whether it's because an adversary is interfering with the GPS or the terrain isn't permitting it.
"They've combined several sensors, such as gyroscopes [and] accelerometers — when GPS isn't available it keeps track of the user's position," David said. "In the app interface, the user looks at maps, they get a warning they're in a GPS-unavailable area…and the sensors will kick in and give you a better understanding of position than if you had no GPS at all."
Another app provides voice-command capability, and not just for handheld devices — it could be mounted computers, or, in the future, information displayed literally before soldiers' eyes.
"Picture you're a commander sitting in back of a Humvee or Stryker vehicle, it's a bumpy ride and you don't want to touch the command system," he said. "But you can use your voice, even in a noisy environment, and say 'turn on my blue picture so I see my friendly forces, turn on my red picture so I see where my enemy forces are'… so it works in a mounted environment and a dismounted environment. And we've recently transitioned a capability to [Program Executive Office]-Soldier Nett Warrior for them to experiment further, because they're going to look at different user-interface modalities, such as a heads-up display."
Other futuristic apps center on manned-unmanned teaming, including connecting to unmanned aerial vehicles via smart devices or using those devices to manage robot swarms — freeing up operators' time while also collecting useful data, David noted.
In the future a commander could also use a Siri-like app that would serve as a virtual staff or assistant — "it's meant to be like a battle buddy" that can answer simple questions, David said. Taking it a step further and putting intelligence on the device could provide even better information.
Back at home, non-tactical apps also are increasing in use, especially in training. In the military schoolhouses young troops are using apps — some commercial, some military-specific — to spot satellites and learn how orbits work, for example.
"It gets in both the visual and reading learning techniques, so it's a helpful training method" for the Call of Duty generation, said Joan Rousseau of the Army's Space Training and Readiness Integration branch at Army Space and Missile Defense Command. "Millennials are visually focused when they learn; they're tactile, visual learners. So that's how you train them on a concept."