updated 10:50 pm EDT, Sat July 16, 2011
Army wraps dry run of smartphone tests
The US Army is near finishing a largely successful test of smartphones on the battlefield. In an interview this week, project director Michael McCarthy told CNN the six-week trials in Fort Bliss, Texas and White Sands, New Mexico were 'encouraging' in gauging the effectiveness of Android, iPhone, and Windows Phone hardware for communicating information in the field. They had also been testing iPads as well as unspecified Dell and HP tablets.
Soldiers have been using the phones to text field reports as well as get map data and send geotagged photos as intelligence. The frequently young troopers are very familiar with the technology, according to McCarthy. Despite the harsh dust and battle conditions, many need only a basic rubber case to last, and soldiers could wear gloves that transmitted capacitive touch to use the phones without having to expose their bare hands.
Problems did occur with the phones that could hint at possible battlefield problems. AT&T's poor coverage of the American southwest meant iPhones weren't initially getting coverage, an issue that could appear on a foreign battlefield where coverage might be non-existent. Android wasn't immunne, either, as a Samsung-made Android phone for Sprint (likely the Epic 4G) had "bugs" in the OS that forced a swap for another make. All of them fall short of military-grade encryption, though these may pass through military radios that lock down the data beyond what Apple, Google, or Microsoft can send.
The tests have been successful enough that an initial batch of smartphones could go to areas like Afghanistan before the end of the year. McCarthy expects the Army to greenlight two platforms as officially supported and has already refined a system that will help port apps between Android and iPhone with a minimum of extra work. Teams have also been testing custom Android platforms known as the Joint Battle Command-Platform Handheld and have even been launching a military app store.
The embrace of off-the-shelf hardware has been considered an attempt to economize in the military. Where it has previously looked to custom-designed equipment that can often be very expensive, smartphones can give the Army and other divisions much of what they need at a lower price and with only a few changes.