Support: Windows 8 Gets Intimate With Fighter Pilots

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August 31, 2013: Although several air forces, and many more commercial air lines, have adopted the use of tablet computers to replace paper manuals, maps, and other documents used in its aircraft (mainly in the cockpit) of larger aircraft, there has been little done for fighter pilots. That is changing, with at least one firm developing an eight inch tablet (the Iconia W3) that can be strapped to the  leg of a fighter pilot and provide information as well as custom apps (software) to assist the increasingly complex task of operating a jet fighter. To that end the developers are using a Windows 8 tablet. Why not use an Apple or Android? Because Windows 8 is a more flexible and powerful operating system and more people can write applications for it. Many pilots can program, especially for an operating system like Windows.

In any event, the main issue is being able to quickly develop and distribute software fighter pilots need. While modern jet fighter cockpits are full of multipurpose flat screen displays that do lots of neat stuff, changing any of the software in the aircraft can take months, or more. But if you need something new for your knee computer, you can get it within days or hours. The Iconia W3 costs about $350 (for the 64 GB). It has a MicroSD slot for up to 32 GB additional memory and provides eight hours of battery life. It weighs 500 g (1.1 pounds) and has a 1280 x 800 8.1 inch (22 cm) screen.

Some fighter pilots have already used (unofficially) tablets and smart phones for consulting documents while in flight. Several air forces are already using various tablets and smart phones to more conveniently consult scanned paper documents. The crews use these paper manuals a lot, from checklists needed for pre-flight preparations to emergency procedure and technical docs. There are also many tablet and smart phone apps out there for aircrew (military and civil) that are being unofficially used aboard military aircraft.

The U.S. Air Force has already officially allowed tablets in transport and bomber cockpits and is currently evaluating the iPad mini tablet to join the iPad in replacing most of the maps and manuals normally carried on larger aircraft. This saves a lot of weight (40 kg/88 pounds or more depending on aircraft type) and money (fuel savings and buying all those print materials). The U.S. Air Force expects to save $50 million in ten years by using iPads and other air forces can expect similar savings. The U.S. Air Force is buying 18,000 iPads (full size and the mini) for its transports (two or more per aircraft) at a cost of about $528 each. The 32 GB air force models will be equipped with special security, to keep hackers out. The air force also has to provide a converter so that the iPads can be recharged from the aircraft electrical system.  The new iPad minis are preferred by flight crews because they are more compact and half the weight (652 g/23 ounces compared to 308 g/11 ounces). Flight crews must have excellent eyesight to get the job so the smaller screen size of the mini is no problem and the smaller size is a plus in the sometimes cramped cockpits. Most of the first iPads issued will be the standard size. Most of the maps and manuals can be used as PDF files, a technology the military has been using for a long time. Several commercial airlines have already adopted the iPad and aviation regulators have signed off on this, and some air force pilots were already using their own iPads for maps and manuals.

Air forces all over the world are catching up when it comes to iPads. These devices were soon being adopted by officers and troops after they first appeared in 2010, without waiting for official permission. The iPad mini showed up in 2012. While using PDF files to replace maps and manuals was one of the first military uses, this was quickly followed by military-specific smart phone apps.

Early on combat pilots in Afghanistan, like many businesses, discovered how useful the iPad could be on board. U.S. Marine Corps helicopter pilots found the iPad a useful way to carry hundreds of military maps, rather than the hassle of using paper versions. Marine commanders quickly realized this "field expedient" (a military "hack" that adopts something for unofficial use while in the combat zone) worked and made it official. That meant buying iPads for this and getting to work coming up with more uses. Meanwhile, support troops that have to handle a lot of data quickly found ways to get it done on iPads. This was pretty simple for technical troops who rely on lots of manuals. They are often already available in PDF format, and can easily be put on an iPad. But the iPads are basically hand-held computers and can do so much more. The troops quickly began making that happen themselves.

About the same time the iPad appeared the U.S. Army decided to establish an app store (the Army Marketplace) for military smart phone users. This quickly included the iPad, which soldiers were instant big fans of. The army app store included an "App Wanted" section where users could post descriptions of an app they need. If a developer (in uniform or an army approved civilian with access to the Army Marketplace) was interested, a discussion could be started on an attached message board. The army found that many needed apps were quickly created and made available at the Army Marketplace. Developers could charge for their apps, although the army would also pay developers to create needed apps that have been described by military smart phone users. The other services quickly adopted a similar attitude towards app development, and many of the U.S. Army apps have shown up on smart phones outside the country.

 


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