In the past century, since the outbreak of World War I in 1914, modern warfare has increasingly utilized technology in a wide variety of forms including faster aircraft, unmanned bombers, and laser-guided weapons. The changes have been mind bending.
Now unmanned combat drones enable troops to “fight” thousands of miles from the frontline of battlefields; fly-by-wire aircraft systems enable automatic guidance and control that is precise and reliable; munitions can be networked so that “smart weapons” can track mobile targets; and rugged computers, tablets, and smartphones are used for a wide range of activities from accessing information from military networks to making detailed maps available. And as technology continues to advance and improve, suitable rugged devices (particularly those aimed at empowering individuals fighting in wars) are becoming smaller and less expensive.
However, to a large extent, it’s not so much how rugged technology has changed the military, but rather how the military has spearheaded advances to ensure that technology meets its needs. For instance, Panasonic’s rugged military-grade laptops, Toughpads and Toughbooks, originally created specifically for use by the military and various emergency services, now offer a huge selection of choices to meet all needs, on the ground, in the air, and under the ocean.
From Tough Green Boxes to Rugged Military-Grade Tablets
Computers have been used by the military for a very long time. Some of the earliest versions were custom-built and housed in tough “frontline green boxes.” But by the turn of the 21st century, commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) computers and computer components were already taking the place of old military-only supplies. The beauty of the “new” rugged computers and notebooks was they were lightweight and less expensive than the early military models. Nevertheless, many were designed specifically with the military, as well as space and commercial aviation users, in mind.
Not surprisingly, one of the first of this new breed of computers developed for outdoor use, to military standards, was the Panasonic Toughbook. The move was seen as getting away from military spec equipment and rather using commercial units that were made using rugged technology on a level suitable for military use. Invaluable in situations where durability is critical in a harsh environment, the best rugged (or ruggedized) computers could be customized for demanding conditions on the battlefield.
By 2001, the US Air Force, Army and Navy were using Toughbooks to plan flight missions as well as for flight line maintenance work where conditions were harsh. Preferred models had magnesium cases, hard disk drives that were shock-mounted, as well as sealed chassis and ports, and weighed between 3.8 and 8 lbs (1.7 and 3.6 kg). However, within two years there was already a marked shift towards rugged tablet and smartphone technology for military use, including command and control, intelligence and communications, as well as reconnaissance and surveillance. There were multiple reasons for this: better processing power and operating systems; a drop in cost; and these smaller, lighter devices were considerably more portable for soldiers on foot to carry.
A number of manufacturers have embraced the military’s growing needs for computer-based products that rely on so-called rugged technology, continually upgrading their equipment to meet harsh environmental demands including altitude, corrosion, altitude, corrosion and noise.
For example, the Toughbook H2 Field designed to meet the depot and flightline maintenance requirements of the US military features a common access card (CAC) that is inserted into handheld devices so that it seals rather than a proximity CAC card. So if a soldier drops his or her tablet or smartphone into a puddle of mud or spills liquid on it, the device won’t be affected in any way. Panasonic also tests all its fully rugged computers by dropping them six feet, four feet being the demanded military standard.
The Internet and The Military
Backtrack half a century to the 1960s to understand the role of the military in rugged technology. Computers were enormous contraptions that filled entire rooms. There was no Internet. Telecommunications were archaic by today’s standards. But technology was developing at an exponential rate, and everything changed incredibly quickly, largely due to military needs.
ARPANET, launched by the US Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA, and later ARPA) in 1969, is accepted as being the start of the Internet as we know it today. In 1983, an unclassified military network called MILNET was formed primarily to enable electronic mail in a secure environment that could be disconnected for security reasons if and when required, and for research.
The military-sponsored ARPANET was terminated in 1990 and the non-commercial US university-based National Science Foundation Network (NSFNET) established five years earlier took over. Commercial traffic was inevitable, and NSFNET was dissolved in 1995. Much has changed since then, with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) looking to find ways to leverage the Internet of Things (IoT) to make the military more efficient and more effective.
Regarded as the next mega-trend technology, the IoT is poised to transform digital technology – including rugged technology – within the next five years.
As rugged technology continues to develop, military demand for lighter, smaller, and more power-efficient computer devices increases. To meet their needs, firms in the industry are investing more resources and time. Competition is growing, but one thing is for certain, rugged technology is improving all the time and it will inevitably continue to change the military all over the world.