Army moving quickly to get smart phones to warfighters

MACE program taking commercial technology and modifying it to make it more secure and rugged. The Army is asking for vendor ideas on how to do this and what app...

By Scott Carr
Federal News Radio

The Army is encouraging soldiers to develop their own apps for the battlefield. But the service isn’t looking to reinvent the wheel. Warfighters could have modified smart phones within a year. Army officials said that’s a goal of the Multi-Access Communications Extender (MACE) program. The Army is working to take advantage of the developments in smart phone technology from the private sector.

Army officials have been interested in adapting smart phone technology for the battlefield for years. Tony Fiuza, the associate director for technology for the Army Research, Development and Engineering Command‘s communications-electronics center (RDECOM SERDEC) said during a DoD bloggers roundtable last week, that MACE modifies existing commercial communications infrastructures in order to get customized smart phone apps into the hands of soldiers.

“This is a huge challenge in that we have a security challenge for the communications network and the devices themselves,” Fiuza said. “There is also an architectural issue that we’re working; how to download applications from a central site, like an app store, down to the cell phones.”

There is a separate effort going on within another SERDEC directorate to develop applications for the devices, he said.

To keep things moving in the development process, a single proprietary provider is not part of their plan. Fiuza said the Army essentially wants to make itself the provider – leveraging existing commercial technology to simplify the process and reduce cost, instead of developing a new kind of phone. Instead, the Army will use commercial smart phones and modify them to make them more rugged and secure.

The Army has put out a request for information for smart phone providers to offer ideas on how they could participate.

In creating a tactical network, he said the hope is that researchers will be able to demonstrate smart-phone capability on a network tied to a mobile network that’s tied to a military backbone by fall 2011.

“So, we’re saying let’s develop an application and standard interfaces, so that a large cell base-station manufacturer can bring a downsized base station down to the battlefield, and it will interoperate with other base stations of other manufacturers and interoperate with our own military-secure networks,” he said.

MACE is a three-year start-up program, but Fiuza said it’s not going anywhere.

The plan is to keep MACE around as an evolving technology, even as changes happen within the wireless industry. Fiuza said, for example, they’ll probably initially focus on 3G technology. That will be used as a baseline.

“Then as the commercial side evolves to [Long Term Evolution] , which is a 4G version, which is a very different technology, let’s try and pull that in to what we’re doing in MACE, evolve MACE, and bring that in quickly,” he said. “It’s never going to go away. We’ll keep evolving… just like the commercial wireless industry does.”

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