DARPA to build military App Store, battlefield 3G
Android wins war for battle phones, iPhone and MS lose
Not content with merely soliciting bids for smartphone apps useful to the military "and the national security community more generally", the Pentagon's tech hothouse now plans something resembling a military App Store - and has unveiled plans to deploy civilian mobile coverage onto the battlefield.
In an announcement issued yesterday, DARPA added to its recent "Mobile Apps for the Military" plan by outlining a further "Transformative Apps" scheme. First on the war-boffins' shopping list is their own App Store, or something very like one:
A military apps marketplace will be created to enable rapid innovation to meet user needs based on a direct collaboration between a vibrant and highly competitive development community and involved communities of end-users.
The earlier announcement had already ruled Windows Mobile developers out of the running, stating that "initial interest will focus on apps developed on the iPhone or Android platforms". DARPA has now thrown the iPhone off the sleigh as well, specifying yesterday that "for the initial implementation, all apps should target the Android platforms".
As to what kinds of wares should be offered for the new DARPA Android war-app store, developers take note:
DARPA is seeking applications to fill a diverse set of needs, including the tactical battlefield, humanitarian missions, disaster recovery, and other mission areas. Example functionalities include command and control, reporting, mission planning, intelligence/surveillance/reconnaissance, real-time collaboration, geospatial visualization, analysis, language translation, training, and logistics tracking. Special attention must be paid to the apps' user interfaces and usability functions, as well as striving towards general simplicity and ease-of-use.
One of the main snags to using many smartphone capabilities on the battlefield (or often enough in a major western city, for that matter) is lack of reliable network coverage. DARPA expect their Android developers to be sparing of bandwidth and able to cope with occasional dropouts, but even so it might seem a little worrying to have troops in combat dependent on the patchy GSM networks of Afghanistan, for instance - especially as these are occasionally menaced into shutting down by the Taliban.
DARPA, fortunately, don't expect soldiers to rely on the local cell towers. Rather, it seems, the US forces will take their own 3G coverage with them:
An affordable, robust, and secure mobile tactical network capability compatible with commercial smartphones will be developed. Infrastructure kits that allow for light-weight mobile base stations need to be easily deployed in multiple variants (e.g. for a large fixed site location, an outpost, a vehicle on-the-move or at- the-halt) and will be used to reach mobile dismounted users. The program will leverage, to the greatest extent possible, commercial components and standards and focus on demonstrating "good enough" solutions with appropriate security and functionality enhancements for tactical users. Non-developmental commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware should be favored when available.
We at the Reg suggested this years ago. Keep up, DARPA, for goodness' sake.
DARPA would also like to hear from people with ideas on middleware for the apps and from those who can help it set up the "marketplace". However if you want to run the marketplace you can't also be an app developer:
An organization that is proposing to implement an apps store will be expected to maintain full fairness and impartiality, and hence are strongly discouraged from developing apps.
On the matter of security, the Pentagon tech chiefs don't seem to want to get bogged down in trying to comply with military protection standards - they're no doubt aware how this tends to cripple and/or slow down a project. They say:
Attention must be given to the software modifications required to address key security vulnerabilities in commercial devices and wireless networks. If hardware modifications are recommended, a justification must be clearly articulated and the approach must be consistent with the program goal of affordable per-unit cost and rapid execution. The Transformative Apps program will primarily focus on the use of apps in unclassified environments and networks.
They aren't kidding about "rapid execution", either, at any rate in a government/military sense. They want to see "very aggressive" proposal schedules, with proof-of-concept demonstrations up and running in 6 months and improvements, final polish etc delivered thereafter.
Full details on the project for those interested in participating - whether as app developer, marketplace manager or pack-up-and-go network provider - are available here in pdf.
We would just like to mention that we suggested a scheme along these lines three years ago, as an alternative to the ludicrously expensive and slow-to-appear UK Ministry of Defence FIST (Future Integrated Soldier Technology) digi-trooper plans. Nice to see DARPA keeping up.
One does also note that even the MoD has lately been forced to plug in some ordinary commercial networking gear in Afghanistan, replacing expensive and not-very-good military kit which is now back in the UK. ®