With governments and enterprises alike becoming increasingly concerned with hardy mobile solutions that are able to withstand the elements and even bombs, the market for ruggedised mobile computing has taken off in a big way.
This means sturdy, powerful devices that can do the business in the searing heat of Afghanistan just as well as they can when being chucked about in an engineer’s toolbag. Oh, and they must be secure and cost-effective too.
As it happens, users are becoming more reliant on a single, robust unit that handles multiple tasks such as information capture, analysis, GPS mapping and communication from field to base, according to Peter Molyneux, VP of Getac UK.
‘Increasingly users across the vertical sectors are looking for ruggedised solutions – both hardware and software – rather than a product, to not only meet their technology needs but to advance their business capability,’ he says.
There’s also been an increased demand across a variety of industries for handheld computing devices that have the full range of wireless connectivity options in a smaller form factor than a laptop but which are more rugged than a smartphone.
What we’re talking about here, says John McMeeking, UK MD at Psion, are mobile PDAs such as the firm’s EP10 that can cope with chemical exposure, extremes of temperature, multiple drops and exceed IP54 certification for the resistance of water and dust.
However, its major asset to the enterprise is the number of different sensors the device supports, he says.
‘Our EP10 device is currently unique because it offers proximity and light sensors, an accelerometer, gyroscope, digital compass and GPS, allowing for automatic backlighting, screen rotation and accurate data geotagging capabilities,’ he adds. ‘These sensors also support applications such as dead reckoning when users take their devices into building or under tunnels where a GPS signal is not available.’
With so many new demands being placed upon these new rugged devices, Phil Boyes, business development manager and head of defence and security sales at Centerprise International, a key channel partner for Panasonic in the defence sector, believes that latterly the challenge has been to meet or exceed standards for drop shock and vibration. But more importantly, products should be impervious to a heightened potential for ingress of dust, moisture, etc., something which has resulted in the increase in IP rating to today’s standard of IP65 and MIL-STD 810G.
‘Significant quantities have been deployed in operational environments, and while we cannot comment on specific projects or locations, the CF-52 and the latest iteration CF-53 are considered the default product for situational awareness, planning and communication platforms where semi rugged product and high computing power is required,’ Boyes says.
The need to dramatically enhance mission effectiveness has resulted in the evolution of a system of intelligence sensors, command and control systems, and precision weapons that have enabled enhanced situational awareness, rapid target assessment and distributed weapon assignment.
So any robustly networked ground force enables information sharing, which enhances situational awareness, explains James Munger-Styles, head of marketing at Blazepoint.
‘This military collaboration, aided by the use of rugged mobile computers, allows for sustainability and speed of control in some of the harshest operating environments in the world,’ he says.
‘Blazepoint offers rugged mobile solutions that are designed and engineered to meet or exceed the unforgiving environmental requirements of MIL-STD 810, which includes dust and water protection, drop and vibration protection as well as being able to operate continually in extreme temperature ranges, humid climates and at high altitude.’
Munger-Styles says all units for its MIL-SPEC Laptop are sealed to protect them from the elements and are vigorously tested, both physically and electronically, in order to comply with MIL-STD 810, EMC and TEMPEST.
‘The provision of bespoke military connectors ensures they are compatible with other military hardware and that the wrong connector type cannot be accidently inserted into the incorrect location,’ he adds. ‘With the units significantly more durable to damage than commercial units, the MIL-SPEC Laptops also provide excellent value in terms of total cost of ownership, as well as ensuring minimal downtime, reducing logistical costs and providing optimum efficiency at all times.’
Molyneux says that units such as Getac’s are built for every eventuality. Its new X500 also comes with in-built fungal protection and screens that can be read in bright sunlight, often something users overlook until they get out in the field.
Such devices are even proving a match for IED attacks in places like Afghanistan.
During a routine patrol, a Dutch Army unit was exposed to an IED attack several metres from an off-road vehicle. The IED explosion shot a rock though the vehicle window and hit the team’s Getac rugged laptop, cracking its case and leaving about a five centimetre puncture in the device. Although the notebook, which was on the vehicle’s dashboard at the time, bore the brunt of the shrapnel blast, it saved the solider inside from serious injury and remained operational.
‘The magnesium alloy casing that surrounds all Getac notebooks and the shock-mounted hard drive inside ensured that the unit survived the shrapnel blast and remained fully functional,’ adds Molyneux.
With US armed forces now making use of wireless networking more than their UK counterparts, Molyneux reveals that Getac has started including a high power wireless network capability into its units to support use over larger areas.
‘The market is also moving to units that are faster and offer more features like cutting edge processing power, such as Core i7, for example, and in-built graphics capability to handle applications such as high-definition mapping,’ he adds.
Wherever the market is heading, these are certainly exciting times for an industry that’s being forced to test itself against bullets, IEDs and extremes of temperature. Indeed, driven by a need for secure and reliable communications that work in almost every conceivable environment - for sand in Afghanistan, think talcum powder in the bedroom - technology today is being forced to live right on the edge of its comfort zones. Even so, the market for ruggedised mobile devices appears to be in rude health.