Carl Miller, Head of Defence UK at Getac, discusses the importance of operator-led equipment for defence professionals in the field, and highlights some of the key features to look for in military-grade devices.
It’s often said that the defence sector offers the ultimate test of equipment, and nowhere is this more true than when it comes to digital technology. As defence becomes increasingly digitised, mobile devices like WinTAKs/ATAKs, laptops and tablets have become essential tools for communicating in the field, bolstering situational awareness, navigating terrain, sharing information and more.
However, specialist applications require specialist devices. Typical everyday consumer-grade devices may be great for streaming music and checking email at home, but they’re unlikely to last long in a humid jungle, hot desert, or muddy field position. Of course, consumer-grade devices aren’t designed with these kinds of environments in mind, but the importance of having the right tool for the job can’t be overstated, particularly in high pressure situations like those regularly faced by defence professionals.
Not all military-grade devices are created equal
That being said, just because a device is labelled as ‘military-grade’, that doesn’t make it true. A growing number of vendors out there today claim to offer genuine military-grade devices, and while many of them are indeed up to the task (and certified accordingly), some are little more than consumer-grade equipment with extra padding and a camo paint job.
Defence organisations need to be vigilant when assessing digital solutions for use in the field. A great place to start is whether a prospective vendor’s solution is operator-led or not. Ultimately, the people best placed to understand the true needs of defence professionals in the field are the defence professionals themselves. Leading manufacturers like Getac understand this, which is why we work closely with defence professionals to create and spec products based on real-world tactical experience. For instance, a bright screen is often touted as a key feature by many vendors, which it certainly can be during the day. However, at night this can quickly become a huge problem if there’s no way to dim it down effectively or use it with night-vision goggles. Being lit up like a beacon is rarely something defence professionals want when operating in hostile environments. Considerations like this are crucial but all too often overlooked.
What to look for in military-grade devices
A defence organisation’s exact needs for its digital devices will be primarily dictated by when and where they are going to be used. Below are some of the key specs and feature sets that organisations should consider when choosing the right devices for them:
Size, weight and power (SWaP)
The combination of size, weight and processing power is incredibly important when considering the most appropriate device for a particular situation or use case. Generally speaking, the increased demand for more processing power has been met by most modern devices, but this can sometimes come at the expense of size and weight. Consequently, organisations need to look at all three factors in combination to ensure the device they choose is fit for purpose. Devices from leading manufacturers like Getac can often be customised with numerous CPUs, RAM, storage and serial port options available. This allows customers to balance every device’s SWaP based on exact specifications.
Extreme stress tolerances
If a rugged device has a MIL-STD-810H badge (previously MIL-STD-810G), it is certified as having undergone a barrage of stress tests for temperature, collision, vibration, etc. If a device has this badge, it’s worth looking at. But organisations must look closer as the tests it encompasses are not always equally strenuous. Drop tolerances will vary (military-grade is 3-6 feet). Temperature tolerances will also vary. Military-grade is -29°C to 63°C / -20°F to 145°F for operation -51°C to 71°C / -60°F to 160°F for storage.
An ingress protection (IP) rating is necessary if water and dust are concerns. A rating of IP65/66 means the device is fully operable in dust and rain. If there’s a submersion risk, you’ll want IP67/68 (operable after 30 minutes underwater or more). Salt fog/water tolerances are another consideration, which there’s no specific badge for, but a vendor will usually state if a model has it or offers it.
Great battery life
Consumer-grade notebooks and tablets offers a few hours of intensive unplugged usage, but rarely will they last a typical 8-hour work shift. Rugged devices use more powerful batteries, trying but not always succeeding in reaching the 8-hour mark.
Of course, defence professionals don’t work 9-5, so military devices must be able to keep working for as long as needed. The best way to ensure this is if the device has two (or more) hot-swappable batteries. With Getac devices, an exhausted battery can be changed out for a fresh one while the other battery powers the device without operational interruption. This can all be done without the need for specific tools as well.
As mentioned above, a military-grade device will have a screen that achieves sufficient brightness to be viewable under direct sunlight (1,000 nits minimum), but it must also be sufficiently dimmable to be used in dark (which requires a high-contrast screen with deep black levels) and capable of being blacked out (along with any backlit keys) instantly.
If a touch screen is required, military-grade means operability while wearing gloves, in wet conditions, or with a stylus (or all of these). Defence professionals also need a large screen with as high a screen resolution as possible. The more space/resolution a screen has, the more text/information can fit on it, making it easier to show videos and deliver briefings.
Screen durability and temperature tolerances are also issues to consider. Condensation in cold weather can make inferior-quality touchscreens hard to use. Cracked screens are a significant reason rugged mobile PCs get sent in for repair. Getac has a proprietary design for its LumiBond® screens that no other rugged device vendor uses.
Comprehensive connectivity and wireless features
Top military-grade devices typically offer both Wi-Fi and 4G-LTE/5G capability, (perhaps with dual SIM capability), for extended range and enhanced reliability, both when using drones and when communicating/sharing information in remote locations. Leading devices, may also offer Li-Fi technology (which transmits via lasers instead of radio). This is a keen area of military interest because external forces cannot hack, penetrate, monitor, or conventionally interfere with Li-Fi.
Conversely, there are some scenarios, such as with high-level security customers, where all comms need to be removed completely, which top manufacturers can also accommodate if required.
Encryption plays a fundamental role in protecting sensitive data and top military-grade devices should offer compatibility with multiple standards. For instance, Getac works closely with industry partners to ensure our device portfolio complies with various encryption demands within the defence sector. As such, our devices currently offer compatibility with both encrypted 2.5 inch SATA SSDs and M.2 SSDs.
Digital technology is now an essential component of defence operations around the world, but just because a vendor offers ‘military-grade’ devices, doesn’t mean they are up to the job. Taking the time to find the right devices, with the right specs, from a vendor that understands the true demands of the defence sector, is critical to achieving long-term objectives and success in the field when it most matters.