A "Must" for the 21st Century Soldier

Since the C-Ration was introduced in 1938, U.S. field rations have included an “accessory pack” that contained a can opener, salt tablets, chewing gum, a pack of cigarettes, and other “necessary” items. The smokes were removed from the packs in 1975 for good reason, but the military still provides soldiers with certain necessary accessories when they go into battle.

The Department of Defense may be looking into adding a new accessory to its “necessary” list—the iPod touch. This device provides the ultimate “mobile professional” with network access, digital camera capabilities, GPS, and video playback. In addition, more capabilities can be added to the device via the iTunes App Store.

Rugged, easy to use, and inexpensive to deploy

The iPod touch may be ideal for modern combat because it’s rugged, easy to use with one hand, and requires minimal training since many soldiers are already familiar with the device from their civilian life. Retailing for under $230, the iPod touch represents a break from the traditional approach to military procurement. The Department of Defense does not have to underwrite the millions or billions of dollars usually associated with the development, testing, and troubleshooting of a new military tool—Apple has already done that! Instead, and with the help of the iPhone SDK and Apple Development Tools, the U.S. military can focus on developing mission-specific apps for a proven platform.

The military is rapidly developing a number of new applications, including one that uses face-recognition software to aid in counter-insurgency, and another that lets soldiers take pictures of their locations and situations and share this information with other soldiers in the area. It’s also developing tools to help soldiers communicate with locals when they are unable to do so otherwise. For example, a platoon that needs help from locals can show them a podcast of a local leader requesting that help. These are just a couple of solutions that will help make a soldier’s job easier and safer.

Military apps in development

BulletFlight Ballistics calculatorVarious branches of the U.S. military have already embarked on development programs for the platform. The Marine Corps is currently funding the development of an application that would allow soldiers to upload photographs and written reports about a detained suspect to a biometric database. The app could match photos taken by the soldiers with existing faces in the database, making it easier to track suspects after they’re released.

iPod Touch in rugged case attached to M110 sniper rifleThe Department of Defense is also funding development of software that enables soldiers to display aerial video captured by cameras on drones and have teleconferences with intelligence agents halfway across the globe. Finally, Army researchers are developing applications to turn the iPod touch into a remote control for a bomb-disposal robot. The app uses the built-in accelerometer to steer the robot by tilting the touch.

The BulletFlight ballistics calculator running on an iPod touch (right); The touch in a rugged case running the app, attached to an M110 sniper rifle (left).

Finally, private developers are also getting into the act as well. Snipers in Iraq and Afghanistan now use a “ballistics calculator” called BulletFlight, developed by the Florida firm Knight’s Armament and available from the App Store. In Sudan, American military observers are using apps to learn the appropriate etiquette for interacting with tribal leaders.

A new program called Vcommunicator is now being issued to soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. It produces spoken and written translations of Arabic, Kurdish, and two Afghan languages. It also shows animated graphics of accompanying gestures and body language, and displays pictures of garments, weapons, and other objects. Procurement officials are making a tremendous push to develop and field useful militarily apps for Apple devices, according to Ernie Bright, operations manager of Vcom3D, the Florida firm that developed the software.

Arabic Cultural Tips (shown above) is a supplement to Vcommunicator, a “Language and Culture Mission Aid” app designed for and used by soldiers of the U.S. Armed Forces in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Sudan.

As more and more military applications for the iPod touch become available, the Apple device may become a standard part of a soldier’s gear. If that happens, it will probably be a popular addition, helping the soldier in combat, and providing him or her with music, video, games, and a connection to the Internet when they’re off duty.

New apps are turning the iPod touch into a must-have accessory for the modern war fighter.
Summer 2009
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