How to buy a tablet for your construction business

constructionsiteThinking of buying tablets for your construction business? Here are 5 things you should consider before you lay your money down.

1) Do you really need a tablet, rather than just keep on using paper and pencils?  This is probably a no brainer, since the advantages of tablets are so clear:

  • Save time by entering data once. No more transferring handwritten information to a computer
  • Improved communications. Fewer telephone calls to the home office since workers can make requests from the worksite.
  • Greater efficiency. Workers can bring virtually the information they need with them. No more rushing back to the office for that one diagram someone forgot to bring.
  • Decreased paper work and printing costs. Over the long run, this and other advantages more than compensates for the cost of the tablet itself.

About the only disadvantage tablet has over the traditional paper and pen method is the learning curve, i.e. it takes time and effort for the workers to learn how to use them and for the organization to adapt.  However, this initial inconvenience is overwhelmed by the eventual benefits.

2) Should you buy a rugged device? Traditionally, there are two downsides to a rugged device; expense and bulk, but both of these disadvantages are rapidly disappearing. A report by VDC Research demonstrated that in the long run, rugged computers save money.  Fewer downtimes, less lost data, and less lost work more than make up for the higher initial cost.  This is especially important on a construction site, where work can grind to a halt due to a cracked screen. In addition, rugged computer developers have made a lot of progress in reducing the size and weight of their products. Even rugged laptops have gotten smaller.  For example, the ROCKY RS11 rugged laptop is only an inch thick.

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3) How can I tell if it is rugged? This can be difficult.  There is no regulatory agency that determines “ruggedness.”  In theory, I could stick a power supply on a banana and call it a rugged computer. Some unscrupulous computer manufacturers claim ruggedness, or invent marketing terms, such as “semi-rugged,” or “business rugged,” when the only things their products have in common with their more durable cousins is the higher price.  To be certain, only buy rugged computers that have been independently certified to MIL-STD 810, the military standard for environmental ruggedness.

4) Should you buy a laptop or tablet? Tablets are more mobile (smaller form factor), have quicker boot-up times, and all the cool kids use them. Laptops have a keyboard (good for quick onsite reports), more powerful processors, and your Dad uses one. However, the single most important difference is the size of the screens. When scoping out a minute detail on a blueprint, or trying to get an overall sense of a project, nothing beats a big screen.  Sometimes your Dad is right.

One laptop that has been popular with AMREL’s construction clients is the ROCKY RF10.  Its 17-inch display is the largest on the rugged laptop market.  For folks who want a laptop with a minimal footprint there is the ROCKY RS11, which is the thinnest, lightest rugged laptop in the world.

However, if you do decide to get a rugged tablet, you can get one that easily runs full Windows.  Both the 8.4” ROCKY DR10 and 12” ROCKY DK10 tablets have speedy i7 processors. If you are ambivalent, you can get a ROCKY DT10 tablet, which has a built-in keyboard, or even a convertible, such as the U12CI.

5) Batteries.  Everyone runs low on battery power. Find out if your rugged computer has an option for a second battery.

There are other issues, such as customization and End of Life, but if you can answer the 5 above questions, you’re ready to get started.

For more information, please contact Javier Camarillo, AMREL’s Senior Application Engineer at (800) 882-6735 or javierc@amrel.com

Battlefield interoperability is here, sort of

soldier commFor decades, the American military has pursued the related goals of interoperable combat communications, netcentric warfare, and team/joint warfare. These Defense initiatives have been more noted for their challenges than their successes. In fact, problems facing true interoperability seemed so great that I had associated it with the drive for procurement reform, i.e. a good idea, but it ain’t going to happen.

A recent article about the Israel/Gaza war has caused me to revise my skepticism.  The IDF’s first fully digital war describes two incidents, which reveal the reality of interoperable communications.

The article contains a video (in Hebrew), which records the first incident.  Gunfire from an unknown origin has pinned down Israeli infantrymen in a building. A trapped Israeli soldier radios an airplane, and then asks the pilot if he can locate his adversaries.  The pilot calmly reassures the soldier that he sees the enemy, and will “destroy” them, which he does.

In a second incident, Navy radar detected the movements in water off the coast of Israel.  The Navy warned seaside military surveillance operators, one of whom spotted Hamas gunmen coming ashore. Video and relevant intelligence was distributed simultaneously both to ground and air forces, who successfully attacked the enemy.

These stories come from Israeli Command, Control, Communications, Computers and Intelligence (C4I), who boasted that the interconnectivity of their forces in Gaza is “unprecedented.” They describe how multiple sources feed video/intelligence to a central core, which then relays them to the appropriate commanders in the field.  If you have read about the doctrine of netcentric warfare or the drive toward interoperable communications, this should sound very familiar.

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The above referenced article was sent to me by someone who wanted to impress me with the technological awesomeness of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). I was about to write her back an email, which essentially said, “Yes, the IDF is very advanced, but these capabilities are no big deal. This sort of thing has been going on for years.”

Before I hit the “sent” button, I reconsidered the message of my email.  I compared the Israeli infantryman’s experience with that of a soldier in the American invasion of Grenada during the early 80s. The American soldier placed a long distance, international, commercial phone call (a big deal in those days) to Fort Bragg, North Carolina in order to obtain C-130 gunship support for his unit, which was under fire. The call for support was relayed by satellite to the gunship, which did respond.  The soldier had to use a commercial telephone service in this roundabout manner, because, in spite of planning and promises, there was no interoperable communications between services.

The Israeli soldier had access to critical, direct inter-service communications that the earlier American soldier did not. The fact that I was not impressed by the Israeli stories is actually a sign of how far we have come.

I contacted Robert Culver, AMREL’s Director of Business Development – DoD Programs for his expert opinion on the current state of interoperability. Had the future arrived, and I hadn’t noticed?

Robert confirmed my impression; the Israeli stories are mundane.  However, he warned that we haven’t reached interoperable utopia yet.  “The problem is not technological,” he said.

Consider the first story of the trapped Israeli infantryman. A “call for fire” is different for an air strike than it is for artillery or other ground support.  For one thing, the impact of an aerial strike would be greater. Has the infantryman been trained to know when an aerial strike is appropriate?  Has he mastered the jargon and rules of the Air Force?

 It is not practical for everyone in a military offensive to have open communications with everyone else; they would drown in a sea of confusing chatter.  Probably, the Israeli pilot was talking to a forward observer, who has been trained for this scenario, but how much training?  “You can practice with bullets every day. Planes, not so much,” said Robert.

What about the pilot?  Can he see what the infantryman did?  In this story, he was able to locate the building in which the Israelis were pinned down, but it may not be so easy in every instance.

Part of the controversy surrounding the plans to eliminate the beloved A-10 (Warthog) has to do with how the Air Force sees itself. A-10s fly low to the ground (Robert:”We can see them eyeball to eyeball”).  But the Air Force doesn’t think of itself as a close ground support service.  They want to rely on the high-flying B-2, and use to technology to compensate for the distance of the pilot from the ground.  Would the trapped Israeli scenario described above be possible if the pilot was flying a B-2?  Would the infantryman know enough to make the proper request to the most appropriate airplane?

Let’s say the infantryman, or more likely a forward observer, was adequately trained for interoperable communications. Could he do anything else useful?  This is not a facetious question. Modern American soldiers are among the most educated in history. In order to coordinate with other services, they will have to learn even more. Cognitive overload is a definite danger.

Even if we are able to adequately train all the services to work well and play nice together, will it do any good? As noted above, American military personnel had been trained in interoperability for the Grenada invasion. Interoperability failed almost immediately. A number of reasons have been cited, but one of the more interesting is the lack of “exercise realism.” Joint service exercises are thoroughly prepared and optimized for results. Of course, “no battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy,” but multiple service cooperation adds a layer of complexity that is easily disrupted.

There are other difficulties, which will be familiar to anyone who has read about interoperable battlefield communications. The need for an open network conflicts with security requirements. Bandwidth management is already a problem, but will get worse with an increase in radio communications.

Interoperable communications have vastly improved. Tales of pilots talking directly to ground-pounders inspire a ho-hum reaction. But we have a long way to go before we fulfill the true promise of interoperability.

 For his insights, many thanks to Rob Culver.

 He can be reached at (603) 325 3376 or robertc@amrel.com.

 

 

 

FirstNet By The Numbers [INFOGRAPHIC & PPT]

FirstNet JPEG v2Oregon’s Single Point of Contact (SPOC) for FirstNet, Steve Noel, had a problem.  He and the Oregon state outreach team needed to contact hundreds of officials about the ambitious plan to provide interoperable communications for First Responders.  Even for communications professionals, FirstNet is not the easiest thing to understand.

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Inspired by Pinterest, they put together a bare-bones, fact-filled infographic.  This straightforward graphic explanation of basic facts has proven extremely effective and surprisingly popular. Buoyed by success of inforgraphic, Steve created a companion PowerPoint demonstration. If you are looking for a good introduction to FirstNet, view infographic here.  For more information, download Power Point.

No more free UGVs for police

As the violent images of Ferguson, Missouri permeate the media, a debate has erupted about the “militarization of police.”  Strangely, this controversy might affect the utilization of Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGV) by Public Safety departments.  The same federal program – Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) 1033 – that delivers riot shields and automatic weapons to police departments for free, also distributes UGVs.

Basically, the feds are transferring extraneous equipment, including UGVs, from the military to the police. Cash-strapped police departments love this.  Others not so much.

Some UGV developers have complained that the free robots dampen their market. Others in the unmanned community have pooh-poohed this idea by claiming that the UGVs being offered by the 1033 program are old, obsolete and/or too banged up to be of value.

Many (including some police officers) have been attacking this military-to-police transfer of equipment.  They claim that supplying even small, rural departments with automatic weapons and other SWAT staples has led to a more violent, confrontational attitude among the police. A good example of this argument is One Nation Under SWAT, which appeared on Salon.com. (This Salon article does not  reflect the opinions of AMREL, the blog, our partners, or our clients. We are linking to it, because we believe that people in the unmanned and Law Enforcement communities should know what is being said in this controversy.)

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UGVs, whose only role is to save lives, are likely to be put in the same category as other “militarized” equipment.  Knowing the way Washington works, if the 1033 program is scrapped, the era of free UGVs would be over.

AMREL has a number of employees who have experience in the Law Enforcement community.  I sent the Salon article to them.  This is the reaction of some of them to the “militarization of police” controversy.

  1. One former officer told me that the militarization of the police is real. It used to be that the only officers that were heavily armed were the ones that belonged to small specialty teams.  Most people practiced “community” policing.  Now, that situation is reversed.
  2. There is an arms race between criminals and the police. I heard several stories of times when the police were outgunned. This has led to a preference for lighter, larger caliber weapons.
  3. Cops like the military-to-police program. “We need automatic weapons,” said one former officer.

So, the essential point of the Salon article is wrong. The distribution of military equipment has not led to a militarization of police.  Rather, a militarization of police has led to the acquisition of military weapons.

As unfair as it might be, this debate is likely to affect the acquisition of UGVs by police.  Members of the unmanned community would be wise to keep an eye on this issue.

AMREL is the leader in providing Operator Control Units (OCU) for UGVs. 

To learn more, contact Rob Culver at robertc@amrel.com  or (603) 325 3376

UPDATE: 

After reading this blog post, AMREL’s Senior Application Engineer, Javier Camarillo, confirms the suspicions of the low quality of the free UGVs.  “I get calls all the time from small police departments, often from non-technical people.  They view UGVs as complicated systems with attachments and accessories. They can’t get the them to work, and they can’t afford the parts they need.  Sometimes, parts for the older UGVs are unavailable at any price.”

Maybe the 1033 program is actually hindering the adoption of UGVs by Public Safety officials.  After all, the distribution of poorly performing equipment is teaching a generation of officers that UGVs are unreliable, expensive to support, and difficult to repair.  For a discussion about the cost and value of UGVs, see an earlier blog post,  UGV cost & why they should have leather seats.

Gaza Robots Get No love

MTGR (2)Ever since militaries took to the air, ground pounders have felt their airborne counterparts enjoyed too much glamour as well as too much credit for victories. Strangely, this tension extends to unmanned systems as well. Even an average person has heard of Predator UAVs, who are often featured in news articles, TV shows, and movies.  On the other hand, the humble PackBot and MARCbot UGVs labor in relative obscurity.

Nowhere is this disparity more evident than the current Gaza conflict. Nightly news anchors pour out superlatives on the remarkable Iron Dome air defense system, but mainstream media ignore the important UGVs.

Since it is operated by humans, the Iron Dome is not usually thought of as an unmanned system (technically this can also be said of Predators and most UAVs as well).  However, the Iron Dome’s most remarkable feature is its artificial intelligence, i.e. ability to track incoming rocket/artillery shell, determine whether its trajectory menaces a populated target, and then deploy an interceptor that neutralizes the threat. This is all done automatically in seconds.

Those of us who remember the Patriot anti-missile system controversies of the first Gulf War greet the unbridled enthusiasm surrounding the Iron Dome with more than a little skepticism.  After all, during that war, the successes of the Patriot were also heralded loudly.  It wasn’t until after the battles ceased that a more sober analysis questioned its effectiveness. Indeed, that debate has never been fully resolved.

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A few Iron Dome contrarians have also emerged. MIT’s Theodore A. Postol writing in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists argues the Iron Dome’s success rate may be as low as 5%. The relatively low casualty rate of Israelis, who have been subjected to over 3,000 rocket attacks, may be due to their excellent civil defense, and the poor quality of the Palestinian weapons. Some regard the notoriously ineffective Qassams rockets deployed by Hamas as primarily psychological weapons.

Whatever the truth is, what can’t be questioned is that the Iron Dome has provided a great deal of emotional comfort to the Israelis.  I have been in contact with friends in Israel, who have repeatedly told me “We trust in the Iron Dome.”  It could be that Israel has countered a weapon that is primarily psychological with a defensive system that is also primarily psychological.

MTGR tunnelQassam rockets may provide good visuals, but the biggest threat to Israel in this war is literally unseen, i.e. the tunnels.  The number, size, and sophistication of Hamas’s tunnels surprised the Israelis, who quickly made their elimination the number one priority of the war.

Exploring enemy’s tunnels is one of the most terrifying missions a foot soldier can undertake. Slowly advancing through a cramped dark environment, a solider must be constantly on guard against hidden booby traps and unseen ambushers.

To assist in this dirty and dangerous task, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have turned to Micro Tactical Ground Robots (MTGR), manufactured by the Israeli firm, Roboteam. MTGR belongs to a smaller class of UGVs, sometimes called “Man-Transportable,” “Throwable-bots,” “Pocketbots,” “Small Unmanned Ground Vehicles (SUGV),” or “Micro-UGVs.”

Militaries around the world have been attracted by the ability of these small UGVs to navigate in compact spaces, and their easy transportability. Prominent American-made small UGVs include ARA Pointman Tactical Robot, and Foster-Miller’s Dragon Runner Reconnaissance Robot.  iRobot fields several compact UGVs, including the 310 SUGV (small version of the PackBot), and  the 110 FirstLook.  This blog explored the advantages and popularity of reduced-size robots in The Incredibly Shrinking UGV.

The Israeli MTGR weighs less than 20 pounds and is only in 17.9” in length. Its Line of Sight (LOS) operating range is 1600 feet.  Five onboard day/night cameras, a microphone and visible/near IR laser pointers work on 3600 of Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR). Real-time video, voice, and data stream over encrypted radio transmissions.

As written above, the Israelis have not been forthcoming about their use of the MTGR, which suggest to me that they regard it’s capabilities as an asset to be guarded.  So, while video of the Iron Dome fill the nightly news, the MTGR crawls, unseen through the darkness. Sometimes, what you can’t see, can save your life.

AMREL is a leading provider of Operator Control Units for SUGVs.

To learn more, please contact Rob Culver at (603) 325-3376 or robertc@amrel.com

 

Remote-controlled .50 cal M2 [VIDEO]

Check out this video of a remote-controlled .50 caliber M2.  About 35 seconds in, you will notice the dual-screen mobile weapons control station.  Nicknamed “the DK Flipper,”  this fully rugged tablet has a separate display for power and video input. This customized DK10 tablet acts as a force multiplier by enabling a single person to control several Remotely Operated Weapon Stations (ROWS). Learn more at AMREL’s tablet customization page.

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