Electronic Weapons: The Magic Box


April 11, 2010:  Combat commanders, particularly company (150-200 troops) and battalion (700-1100) commanders have come to depend on laptop computers, especially when their units are on the move. These laptops can be crammed with all the data a commander needs, including maps, plans and software needed to run their units, plan operations, and then carry them out. Blue Force Tracker shows the commander where everyone is, and satellite communications puts him in touch with his bosses, and subordinates. All in one small object. A magic box, as it were.

Back in the 1990s, off-the-shelf models were often used. But the computer industry had already noticed the need, at least for civilian users (construction sites, field operations, factories). There followed an unending series of ruggedized computers, and these were soon modified to meet existing military specifications for electronic equipment. Thus in the last decade, new models are constantly developed, incorporating new components and technologies (especially wireless communications, particularly with satellite networks).

Typical of these ruggedized laptops for the military is the Topaz, a 5.4 kg (12 pound), 38x29x5cm (14.85x11.25x2 inch) model with a 39 cm (15.1 inch) display (viewable in daylight). Topaz has a wide variety of component options. You can have up to 8 GB of RAM, and a 32 or 64 bit CPU. You can have either a hard drive (up to 320 GB) or a 240 GB solid state drive. All hard drives are removable, as is the DVD drive. Ethernet and wi-fi can be installed, as well as satcom via PCMCIA/PCCARD ports. There are smart care readers and various security options. The laptop is dustproof, waterproof and able to survive drops (of about a meter) onto a hard surface. The laptops are resistant to vibration and blast damage.

Troops in Iraq have found an additional problem in that the blast from roadside bombs would often damage the display. That's been a tough problem to solve. So the U.S. Army is trying to develop bomb proof computer displays (screens). One of the more promising solutions is "digital paper."

There has always been commercial research on "digital paper", but the demand was never large enough to attract a lot of research money. The existing display technology got the job done at an attractive price. Since the various digital paper technologies would produce a more "bomb proof", and much more expensive, display, it was not commercially viable. There was just not a big enough market for such a rugged electronic display. But now the U.S. Army believes they have a real need for this sort of thing, even if the displays cost several times what existing, glass based ones, do. There are several digital paper designs nearly ready for mass production. So the army put money into the Flexible Display Center (a university research operation) to get some of the more promising models out of the lab and onto the assembly line. Within a few years, the army expects to have new flat panel displays that can take an explosion or two, and keep on shining. The new displays will also be, in some cases, literally "digital paper," and bendable. This makes it possible to put displays in more places, for more uses, and yet be more resistant to blast damage.

Meanwhile, officers and NCOs are looking for a ruggedized smart phone to replace a lot of the ruggedized laptops. So the army is working with Apple (the iPhone and Touch are most popular with the troops) and other manufacturers to create a battlefield Smart Phone.





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