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Fixing a Failed Mobile Business Solution: Case Study

As discussed in Ten ways mobile business solutions succeed and fail, integrating mobility into an enterprise’s communication network can be a tricky affair. Many businesses hand out smartphones to their employees, and expect wonderful benefits to just automatically roll in. A more thought-out strategy usually yields better results.

Recently, I heard a case study in which an enterprise had a mobile strategy that not only wasn’t working, but also was negatively impacting their bottom line. How they successfully transformed their communication network from a minus to a plus says a lot about the use of mobile devices in enterprise solutions.

 

The problem

A well-established Oil & Gas company had been using paper forms to collect and tabulate field data. This meant that:

  • Paper forms had to be filled out by hand in the field under less than ideal conditions.
  • The forms had to be transported by vehicle to the main office, often hours away.
  • Information in the form had to be reentered into a digital format at the office.

Transportation of forms and copying data took a great deal of time and man-hours. In fact, Canvas, a cloud-based software service and mobile app platform, estimates that for each individual paper-based form used, the company suffered an additional expense of $50,000 per year in costs associated with printing, shipping, data entry, filing, storage and mandatory destruction.

There were other problems besides. Customers were unable to receive critical information in real-time. Managers had to delay crucial decisions. Important photographs sometimes became separated from reports. Paper reports were lost, damaged, or even stolen while in transit or in the field.

The company decided to use smartphones to collect field data electronically. By transitioning away from paper forms, it was hoped that the company could save time and money.

Unfortunately, when remote workers initially used their smartphones, the results were less than ideal. Not all oil rigs and remote locations have Wi-Fi-and cellular coverage. This led field workers to believe that they could not completely end their reliance on paper forms.

The company’s original mobile strategy was to communicate data through text messages. Text messages were often copied from paper forms which were then sent to the main office, where the text messages were reentered into a database. This copying and recopying significantly increased the chances of error. Furthermore, the words in the texts were often abbreviated or misspelled, which made the data entry even more challenging.

The biggest single problem was that every text was sent as a group message. When workers returned from the field, they would have to scroll through hundreds of texts to find the one they wanted. Reports to clients and internal stakeholders were delayed by hours or even days.

 

The solution

Canvas worked with this Oil & Gas company to implement a successful mobile strategy.  Their solution featured digital forms that worked both off-line and on-line. This allowed workers to fill out forms on their smartphones while in the field, no matter what the coverage was. No more paper forms.

Migrating paper forms to the cloud (and local platforms) turned out to have a number of significant advantages, other than the obvious one of saving man-hours. Quality improved, because the forms used drop-down menus with fully written, correctly spelled words, rather than the previously utilized shortened text messages. Standardizing the data made analysis and sharing much easier. Clients were informed of the status of field locations in real time. People within the company got a searchable database which was linked to inventory control, catalogs, and other information management systems. In addition, time/GPS stamped photos and electronic signatures were easily linked to the forms.

Canvas specializes in this sort of form migration. They offered their client a choice of using user-friendly, web-based, build-your-own-app solutions, or simply buying one of the thousands of readymade apps that populate their store. They shepherded their client through the process in a matter of just a few weeks. What I found most remarkable is that they were able to implement this solution with virtually no IT support.

Fixing a poorly conceived solution is often harder than implementing an appropriate one in the first place. The fact that Canvas was able to do so in a short period of time with comparatively little resources speaks well of the flexibility and efficiency of their migration services.

 Any cloud-based solution that is used in a challenging environment works better on a rugged, reliable platform. AMREL and Canvas have teamed up to offer new, innovative solutions for business’ information management needs. Use our lightweight fully rugged tablets for remote evaluations, inspections, data collection, reporting, dispatching, invoicing and estimation. To watch a video about Canvas solutions, click here.

To learn how an AMREL Rugged Tablet/Canvas cloud-based solution can help your enterprise, contact Linda Talcott at (800) 882-6735 or lindat@amrel.com.

 

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ROCKY DF7A with Radio Card

DF7A-with-radio-card-expansionDespite its compact size, the ROCKY DF7A is an extremely flexible platform.  On its top surface, you have options for an embedded antenna, as well as  two SMA connectors for your choice of external antennas. On the bottom, there are three different locations for your choice of connectors.

However, a more radical change was required when a client wanted to install a radio card that that was too large. Our customization experts constructed a larger chassis to accommodate radio card’s size. AMREL has done similar customizations for ROCKY DS11 tablet and ROCKY DB7 handheld.

 

 

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Game of Phones: Will Apple sue the FBI?

Does the FBI have to tell Apple how it cracked the iPhone? The answer is not straightforward, and is illustrative of the many problems surrounding encryption.

 

The many discontents of encryption

Encryption is a very important security measure and it is also a real pain. For one thing, once encrypted, devices have a shorter battery life, and transmit data at a slower speed. In order to encrypt a device, valuable real estate can be taken up by the security hardware. At AMREL, we are familiar with this challenge, because our customization services are often asked to add Trusted Platform Modules (TPM) to our computer platforms.

In addition, high-security encrypted devices create bizarre unforeseen consequences. Soldiers are sometimes ordered to use systems for which that they are not cleared. Repairmen often lack clearance, so a broken encrypted device must be disposed rather than fixed.

 

Apple vs. FBI

In the latest round of “Game of Phones,” another unforeseen consequence appears possible. After months of applying legal pressure to Apple, is it the FBI who will ironically be forced to yield up their secrets? Will they be forced to tell Apple how they did their hack?

How did the FBI crack the iPhone in the first place?  Rumors have been circulating that the Israeli company Cellebrite Mobile Synchronization cracked the iPhone used in the San Bernardino terrorist shootings. That the FBI had to use an outside contractor to crack the iPhone is plausible. For one thing, there is a reason that the phrases “FBI” and “leading-edge technological capabilities” rarely appear together.

That an Israeli company did the hack is also believable, for that country has earned a reputation for expertise in encryption. Israel has developed these skills because its computer networks are under constant attacks. In addition, it has the highest number of programmers per capita of any country in the world. There is even a highly developed ancient tradition of cryptology and secret codes within Jewish mysticism.

Still any rumor in the Middle East has to be greeted with skepticism. I have met hackers who have valued reputation over the risk of legal retribution by falsely claiming exploits. The Cellebrite rumor appears to have some credibility. Around the time of the hack, it is a matter of official record that the FBI paid over $200,000 to this company.  A lot of people seem to believe this rumor, because the shares of its parent company, Japan’s Sun Corporation, have risen 40% since March 2.

 

Our lips are sealed

The fact that it is likely that a private corporation was the one to hack the iPhone is significant in the issue of who tells what to whom. Supposedly, the government is bound to inform companies of vulnerabilities in their encrypted systems, as determined by something called the “Vulnerabilities Equities Process” (VEP).

The VEP was developed in a thoroughly transparent process and actively shared with the public by the administration. Just kidding. Everything about the VEP is opaque. The Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) had to sue under the Freedom Information Act to get a highly redacted version of the VEP, which can be viewed here.  The EFF is not impressed with this document. Judging by information about government actions as revealed by the Snowden leaks, the EFF has dubbed the VEP as “…so much vaporware.”

 

The weird world of administrative law

Or is it? Just how meaningful is the VEP?  IF Apple could persuade a court that according to VEP, the government has to reveal the vulnerabilities of their encryption, would the administration have to follow their own rules? The VEP belongs to that surreal realm of “administrative law.”  Congress didn’t pass it. By and large, it’s not determined by court rulings or precedent. It’s just something that a bunch of administrative agencies made up.

I called a lawyer who has more than fifty years of experience of using the law to annoy the government. I asked, “Do government agencies have to follow their own made-up rules?” Her answer was a definitive, absolute, unqualified “Maybe.” In addition, she said that whatever decision is made by the courts, it will be “political.”

 

“It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing”

It is extremely unlikely a court will determine if the VEP applies or not. The fact that a private party (Cellebrite) probably hacked the iPhone is significant, because the VEP does not apply to private parties. The VEP only applies to vulnerabilities discovered directly by government agencies themselves.

Furthermore, according to the Washington Post, “FBI Director James B. Comey has said that the solution works only on iPhone 5Cs running the iOS 9 operating system — what he calls a ‘narrow slice’ of phones. Apple said last week that it would not sue the government to gain access to the solution.”

So after months of the FBI pressuring Apple to hack its own iPhone, it withdraws from the case, and says never mind. After months of declaring that the iPhone hack will endanger all iPhones, Apple has similarly dismissed its efforts to force the FBI to reveal its secrets. Some have suggested that the “narrow slice” description is accurate and Apple is not truly worried about the security of its future platforms.

The one thing that is clear from all this brouhaha is that our legal structure is completely inadequate for dealing with issues raised by new technologies. In the original court case, the FBI sued Apple on the basis of a law written in 1789.

In the meantime, I have a sinking feeling that the privacy of the average user was not a great concern in this latest round of legal wrangling. As Elliot Hannon wrote in Slate, “We’re all digital piñatas really.”

 

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AMREL’s New Biometric Handheld – World’s Toughest & FBI Certified

AMREL has announced the FBI’s certification of XP7-ID, the world’s most rugged biometric handheld.xp7

“This is an important milestone not just for us, but for the security and law enforcement community,” explains Richard Lane, AMREL Vice President of Strategic Business Development. “This certification will expand access to the XP7-ID, which is quite simply the most rugged highly integrated biometric smartphone in the world,”

To be on this exclusive FBI’s Certified Products Listing, the XP7-ID was tested and found to be in compliance with the FBI’s Next Generation Identification (NGI) System Image Quality Specifications. The review of the test data was conducted by the Technology Evaluation Standards Test Unit, a part of the Biometric Center of Excellence led by the Criminal Justice Information Services Division.

“This certification is just one step on the XP7-ID journey into widespread adoption,” states Mr. Lane, “AMREL worked hard to create a ‘best of breed’ total solution platform that meets the needs of end-users. XP7-ID works on all the carrier networks including AT&T, Verizon, and FirstNet. XP7-ID has features that rival Push-To-Talk radios, live-scan booking stations, in-vehicle computers, as well as body-worn video cameras.”

AMREL developed the XP7-ID in cooperation with Integrated Biometrics. Fingerprints are captured by the industry-leading Sherlock, an Integrated Biometric module which utilizes a state-of-the-art Light Emitting Sensor.  This sensor is fully rugged, uses little power, needs less maintenance than traditional methods, and captures FAP-45 quality images.

“Integrated Biometrics is proud that our LES technology is part of the AMREL XP7-ID Biometric Smartphone, a rugged device serving mobile identity needs in any environment,” said Mike Grimes, President of Integrated Biometrics.

Although the XP7-ID is designed for use in a variety of situations, special measures were taken to serve the Public Safety community. When asked about this biometric device, Assistant Chief William ‘Bill’ Leist (Ret) California Highway Patrol replied, “The XP7-ID is designed to fit the needs of modern law enforcement. The enrollment capability for high quality fingerprint capture will save officers from making unnecessary trips to booking stations.  Furthermore, its exceptional ruggedness will ensure it will not break down at critical times.”

For system integrators as well as Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) software developers and vendors, the XP7-ID is the ultimate Android hardware solution platform. Supported with full application program interface (API), Software Development Kit (SDK) and developer portal, independent developers will be able to connect with every resource needed to build highest quality solutions for mobile identification.

Read more about the AMREL XP7-ID here.

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Is your smartphone more reliable than your desktop?

I have encountered an interesting prejudice. Some people have confidently informed me that the smaller the form factor, the more reliable it is.  Laptops are more reliable than desktops, but less reliable than tablets, which aren’t as rugged as handhelds.

To be clear, whatever rugged platform AMREL sells you – tablet, laptop, or handheld – it has been built for the utmost reliability.   We build our computing solutions as if lives depend on them, because a lot of the times lives do depend on them.

If you have never heard of the “smaller is more dependable” myth, don’t worry about it; most of the experts that I talked to never heard of it either.  In fact, for reasons, which will be explained, it doesn’t make sense on multiple levels.

Still, I wondered why some people might think their smaller platforms are more dependable. Here are few theories.

The problem is not the hardware, but the operating system (OS). Most desktops still use Windows, while many smaller form factors do not.  Some point to Windows as the culprit behind the “bigger is more unreliable” myth. Windows has a number of issues which could contribute to more frequent breakdowns.

For one thing, the Windows OS on your desktop has a lot of updates, whereas the Android OS on your smartphone may be frozen.  Frequent updates create more points of failure and more “bloated” software. Furthermore, Windows seeks updates during the boot process, which can overload the CPU, leading to a significantly slower starting time.

Legacy issues are another cause of “bloated” software.  Your brand new Windows OS has to accommodate programs that were written when floppy discs were still considered an exciting new innovation. This leads to complications, more resources being used, and just more problems. Also, developers for the newer Android OS can learn from the mistakes that Windows has made previously.

Some claim that Windows is more susceptible to malware and viruses than the OS typically used on smartphones.  This makes sense considering how much older and widespread Windows OS are.

In addition to the Windows OS, some point the finger at poorly written applications. Apple is notoriously strict about the apps than can run on its equipment. Windows less so.

Nope, hardware is the problem. Supposedly, hardware used in laptops and desktops are much more varied than those found in tablets and smartphones. This is more challenging for their OS, and a more diverse supply chain contributes to quality issues.  I am not sure this is true, but some folks believe it.

More flexibility means less rigidity, which means less reliability. You have a lot more options on your desktop than your smartphone. A simpler, locked-in, frozen device has less ways of fouling up.  It is more likely that your machine gun will jam than your sword will break.

The simplicity of the smaller form factors means they’re easier to upgrade. All computer companies constantly improve their platforms. However, smartphone manufacturers have an easier time of fixing problems, because of the more limited nature of their solutions. Again, I am not sure I totally buy this explanation, but it is an argument that I have heard.

Actually, smartphones are not more reliable than desktops. We throw away broken smartphones. We repair desktops. We mentally compartmentalize the two tasks differently, so we think never think about debugging smartphones, whereas we remember the frequent annoying calls to tech support for our desktops.  Think of how often you buy a smartphone as compared to how often you buy a laptop or desktop.

The “smaller is more reliable” myth is really, stupid and reflects a fundamental misunderstanding about technology. By far and away, this was the sentiment that I heard expressed the most by AMREL’s engineers.

“Compared to a smartphone, a desktop is a large truck,” explained Magnus Pyk, AMREL’s Director of Engineering. “It has more power, more torque, and just more room for more stuff. You can put an entire recording studio on a desktop, far more than what a tablet or smartphone is capable of. Smaller form factors are lowered powered, simpler systems. This is worse than comparing apples to oranges.”

In other words, you can’t compare the different platforms, because they are not comparable. They are built for entirely different range of capabilities. A compact car might get better gas mileage than a tank, but if I had to go into battle, I know which vehicle I would want.

Whatever form factor you do decide on, you may want to check out AMREL’s complete list of offerings.  No matter what size platform you choose, we have one that you will absolutely, positively be able to depend on.

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Ten Ways Mobile Business Solutions Succeed and Fail

When offices first went digital, a large number of businesses failed to successfully integrate computers. One story that I heard more than once was “We bought computers six months ago. Now they sit on the shelf in a closet where they are a very expensive way of gathering dust.”

Something like this is currently happening with mobile solutions. An estimated 100 million workers use mobile devices for business purposes. However, a surprisingly large number of mobile business solutions have failed. Here, at AMREL, we hear a lot about them, because we have reputation for technical support, i.e. we get many calls about problems affecting other companies solutions, because the end users are so frustrated with the original supplier that they try contacting us.

Before you buy a mobile communication solution, here are a few of things to look for:

1) Lack of user buy in. This is probably the number one cause of failure, and many of the examples given here are really just a variation of this problem. The end-user (field personnel, maintenance worker, salesman, warfighter, warehouse worker, etc.) simply doesn’t want to use the shiny, new mobile device. Pen and pencil worked fine all this time. Why should he invest energy in making a change?

Before one deploys a communication solution, survey the end user. What are their needs? Their challenges? After the system is rolled out, survey them again and again. Are they having problems with the new solution? What changes do they recommend? Be prepared for a lot of tweaking even after the system is deployed. Remember: You don’t get decide when you are done with the solution deployment. It may never end.

2) Overlooking back-end and software functionality. This was much more of a problem in the past than it is now. The older generation viewed software as an afterthought, while hardware was the “real” heart of the solution.

Still this problem shows up even today. Is the application user-friendly? Does it enable the end-user to perform their most important tasks? Has the app been optimized for mobile devices? Is the back-end scalable so you can adjust it for future needs? Is the back-end off the shelf or specifically made for your enterprise? If it is unique, does that mean you’re locked into support by one vendor? These are questions that businesses have learned to ask the hard way.

3) End-to-end solutions. This is an example of a “back-end” problem mentioned above. End-to-end solutions can be great, but let me tell you an example in which they weren’t.

A big city police department needed a new in-vehicle solution. They replaced their mobile computers with a cheaper brand, which only worked with the manufacturer’s proprietary software. The department thought they were getting a great deal, because the initial price was lower than anything else on the market.

The software was a disaster. Officers didn’t get emergency messages quickly or sometimes not at all. The entire system (in-vehicle computers and software) was replaced in a year.

Several years ago, I attended a seminar in which large Public Safety departments described how they were going to meet FirstNet requirements. Several participants railed against end-to-end solutions. I don’t agree; some end-to-end systems work well. But I can’t say that I was surprised by the vehemence that was expressed.

4) End user literally can’t see the information on the screen. The screen is washed out by the sun or is too small to accurately display the information needed for the task. Seems obvious, but businesses have been known to overlook this.

5) No keyboard. Tablets work fine for checklists, but what about the comments section, which can be a critical part of a worker’s responsibilities? One company failed to get productivity gains for field personnel, because all waited to get back to the office before inputting data. Since they were going to sit down at their desktops anyway, why split the work of data entry into two tasks? Of course, you can always buy a tablet with a QWERTY keyboard, such as AMREL’s ROCKY DT10.

6) Politics and brand loyalty. Buy an iPad if it fits your enterprise’s needs. Don’t buy it to look cool. The Los Angeles Unified School District paid a very expensive price for this lesson.

7) Access to databases. Another version of the “back-end” problem. Some workers will not use their mobile devices if they can’t access databases, such as product catalog, CRM, and order entry systems. Lack of access prevented them from completing their tasks, so just like the field workers above, they waited until getting back to the office to input data. Don’t assume you know what info they need. Ask them.

8) Workers are scared to use mobile devices, because they are expensive. Some companies are especially punitive toward workers who damage their mobile devices, so they simply leave them in the box and never use them. Give your staff peace of mind, save money in the long run, and buy rugged computers.

9) Can’t physically carry the device. Supervisors assumed that warehouse workers would always have a free hand to use a mobile device. Turned out they were wrong. When strapped to belts, the devices always got in the way, and workers needed two hands for most tasks. Hate to sound repetitive, but, again, ask the end user.

10) Bring Your Own Device (BYOD). There are advantages and disadvantages to this popular policy. Read about it here.

The above is not meant to be complete, but rather a collection of anecdotes that we have heard over the years. Do you have your own mobile story? Send it to editor@amrel.com.

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5 mobile mistakes made by businesses

More and more enterprises are adopting mobile solutions. Mobile devices boost employee satisfaction, enhance productivity, increase efficiency, and improve communication.

They also cause headaches. BIG headaches.  In order to have a smile on your face, instead of pain in your head, take a quick look at some common business mobile mistakes that you want to avoid.

 

Bring Your Own Problem

Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) is very popular. Employees like doing work on their own devices, and not having to learn a new operating system. Employers like the fact that employees are paying for their own business equipment.

In fact, BYOD is a big success, except when it isn’t.  Some common problems enterprises run into are:

  • Support for cross-platform applications. Listen carefully, and you will hear the sound of IT support personnel all around the world pulling out their hair as they try to ensure that the latest program upgrade is compatible on Windows, Windows CE, Android, and Apple platforms. One of the big drawbacks of BYOD is that IT guys must become overnight experts on everything.
  • Information “walking away.” So you fired that one problem employee who made life miserable for everyone. Good for you! Did you notice that he walked off with a ton of proprietary information in his personal mobile phone? Didn’t you install a remote wipe function? Oops.
  • Industry specific problems. If you work in the medical field, you have to ensure all devices meet rigorous HIPPA standards. If you are working in the Defense industry, everything has to be encrypted. Making sure all your employees’ personal devices meet your specific industry requirements and work together with each other is not impossible. But it’s no fun either.

This is by far not a conclusive list. For a more details on the joys and tribulations of BYOD, see BYOD Pros & Cons [INFOGRAPHIC].

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Cheap is expensive

You decide BYOD is not for you. The next step is to buy the right mobile device for your staff. Of course, you want to save money, so you buy the cheapest decent mobile device you can find.

Turns out that the initial cost of a purchase is a minor part of the Total Cost of Ownership.  A study by VDC Research raised some eyebrows when they reported that for mobile computers, the expenses of repair, replacement, missing data, and lost productivity were far larger than the initial cost.

They recommended investing in “rugged” computers, which often have a higher purchase price than their commercial counterparts. These durable devices have been hardened to withstand shock, temperature extremes, dust, water, and other severe environmental factors. Popular with military and police, these tough computers are also being adopted by businesses in order to save money in the long term.

 

Don’t forget the connectors

Considering the myriad of details that one must evaluate during a mobile device purchase, it’s easy to overlook something a prosaic as connectors. However, humble connectors can have a surprising impact, especially when you are dealing with legacy or heterogeneous equipment. Field technicians may need to download information from remote sensors. Repairmen might require a mobile device that can interact with a testing machine. Warehouse workers may need a mobile platform that can directly connect to the company’s mainframe. All these tasks may necessitate specific kinds of connectors, or even customized ones. Be sure to check out the connectors before you purchase.

 

Ask for the moon

“What I really need is a mobile device that has an RFID reader, a Point of Sale device, and a fingerprint sensor. Of course, such a thing does not exist, and I can’t afford to build one from scratch.”

No matter how ridiculous you think your request is, ask. If you are reading this article, there is a good chance that you are not an expert in this field. You do not know what is possible, and there is a chance that a professional will know of a solution that would have never have occurred to you.

 

Think big. Buy small.

When you are dealing with a challenging purchase, there is a temptation to rely on the big well-known brands. The problem is that the larger a company, the less agile it is.

For example, you want the value of a Commercial Off the Shelf (COTS) product, but you have specific needs that cannot be met by the standard offerings. Customization is expensive, and often requires unreasonably large orders.  Wouldn’t be great if you got the best of both COTS and customization?

There is such a thing and it is called “Customized COTS,” which has been embraced by some of the smaller mobile device manufacturers. Due to their smaller size, they are able to deliver products that have the value of COTS and the advantages of customization even for low value orders, often with minimal Non Recurring Engineering (NRE) fees.  Seek and you will find them.

Of course, there are many other considerations one must weigh before buying mobile devices for your enterprise.  If you have any questions please consult the experts at AMREL.  Call (800) 882–673, email cdinfo@amrel.com, or visit computers.amrel.com.

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Windows 10 is here. Resistance is futile. [VIDEO]

Should you upgrade to Windows 10?  You should if:

  1. You don’t have enough anxiety in your life. Nothing like learning a new operating system to  raise dangerously low levels of stress.
  2. You really, really hate Windows 8. Microsoft set out to fix the mistakes of its earlier OS (The Start menu is back! Yay!).  This is why Windows 10’s unofficial slogan is “Now, 67% less annoying than Windows 8!”
  3. You absolutely, positively must play Xbox games on your laptop. There is an export feature that allows you to do this, and evidently it’s pretty cool.
  4. You have too much privacy and want to received personalized ads. Sure you can opt out of Microsoft’s snooping, but as Alec Meer of the gaming site Rock, Paper, Shotgun notes: “….  despite chest-thumping, we’re-all-chums-here talk about how ‘real transparency starts with straightforward terms and policies that people can clearly understand.’ There is no world in which 45 pages of policy documents and opt-out settings split across 13 different Settings screens and an external website constitutes ‘real transparency.’”

The consensus seems to be that Windows 10 is here to stay, possibly for a long time.  So, if you are a PC user, you will be using Windows 10. Before you upgrade, you  may want to wait for awhile until some of the bugs shake out.

For a more comprehensive review with considerably less snark, watch the video below.

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See you at SOFIC

SOFIC 2015 v2

 

Get a sneak peek!  AMREL will show off its new rugged Android tablets & handheld devices at this year’s SOFIC!

AMREL will feature a preview of some its newest, most advanced rugged computing solutions including:

  • Android/Windows solutions, such our new Android handhelds.
  • Super-slender laptops, such as  the ROCKY RV11 the thinnest, rugged laptop on the market that has a 15.6” display.
  • Powerful handheld & tablets, including our new Flexpedient Android tablet.

 We customize, design, prototype, and deliver solutions faster than anyone

 Learn more at: computers.amrel.com

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AUVSI 2015: Impressions & Rumors

AUVSI Unmanned Systems Conference was bigger and better than ever. AMREL was there of course. What did our team think of this tradeshow?

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) explosion

UAVs were everywhere. It seemed as if everyone was peddling their own UAV or looking for one to invest in.

Not all were impressed with the proliferation of UAVs. “They all look the same,” complained one person. “Like quadcopter toys from a hobby shop.”

One unusual UAV that got people’s attention was the Goose BRAVO from Mist Mobility Integrated Systems Technology (MMIST). An upgrade of the CQ-10A that supported Special Forces, it is a modern version of an old technology: gyrocopter (autogyro). Usually, a gyrocopter is something you see in 1930’s movies, not in modern skies. Yet, it can lift 600 pounds, fly 70 mph, and reach 18,000 feet.

Operator Control Unit (OCU) explosion

Since AMREL is the premier supplier of OCUs, we were especially interested in the control units. Again, individuals in our staff were not impressed. There were as many control units as there were UAVs. Every developer was controlling their UAVs with devices that were dedicated to their specific offering. It seems that the Pentagon’s decades long campaign for interoperability is being completely ignored.

“Nobody is paying them to make interoperable control units,” explained Rob Culver, AMREL’s Director of Business Development, DOD Programs.  That’s because…

Defense is no longer the key target market

UAV developers are going after the civilian market big time. Targeted applications include photography, videography, filming, mapping, inspection, logistics (delivery), crowd control, patrolling, spot spraying fields, seeding farms, mining, herding, follow me, and of course the old standby, reconnaissance.

Defense is increasingly seen as a troublesome market. Lots of grumbling on the tradeshow floor about congressional shenanigans creating uncertainty in military funding.

At first glance, the UAV developers’ fixation with civilian applications seems warranted. Consumer Electronics Association predicts 1 million flights a day in American airspace during the next 20 years. Investors are looking forward to a billion dollar commercial market once the FAA permits non-Line Of Sight operation.

Indeed, at the conference, the FAA raised everyone’s hopes with its announcement about the Project Pathfinder initiative. Project Pathfinder is an agreement with CNN, PrecisionHawk and BNSF Railway to explore civilian applications.

However, the Defense market is far from finished. At a presentation at the conference, Derrick Maple, principal unmanned systems analyst for IHS Aerospace, predicted a global defense and security UAV market of $11.1 billion by 2024, a doubling of the current one. The US military may be slowing down its procurement of UAVs, but other countries are ramping up their purchases. Maple cited “Australia, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Poland, Spain and the Middle East region” as areas of opportunities for American manufacturers.

In addition, the major obstacles to commercial UAV applications are not going away soon. There are solid reasons why FAA has been dragging its heels on integrating UAVs into civilian airspace. No one has yet solved the fundamental challenges of poor visibility and collision avoidance. This isn’t even mentioning such problems as radio frequency conflicts, which will become more significant as commercial UAVs increase.

Seems like an awful lot of people are betting an awful lot of money that the FAA will overcome these problems soon. I hope they aren’t expecting a quick return on their investment.

Hot rumor#1: The rugged vs. non rugged debate lives on

Not all the talk at AUVSI 2015 was about unmanned systems. There was a rumor about the military’s utilization of non-rugged mobile handhelds.

Some have argued that Defense doesn’t need rugged mobile devices. Ordinary commercial devices have a better supply train, are more advanced, and are cheaper. Just stick a protective case on them, and you have a solution that is “rugged enough.”

Rugged proponents counter that using a protective case on a commercial mobile device is like trying to fly by sticking wings on a car. Looks good, but it just won’t work. To be truly tough, one needs a device built rugged from the ground up.

Way back in 2011, we reported on rumors of end-user discontent following the Network Integration Evaluation (NIE). Soldiers didn’t like the fragility of the commercial handhelds. Sand, high temperatures, and sunlight readability were significant problems.

Despite these negative results, the vision of buying off-the-shelf smartphones for soldiers proved too alluring. The non-rugged advocates preserved.

Commercial handhelds advocates may not have gone away, but neither have the problems. According to rumor, there is continued end-user dissatisfaction with non-rugged smartphones. Again, sunlight readability is a problem. Turns out the protective case does an OK job guarding against shock and drop, but actually makes temperature and vibration problems worse (An enclosed case around an electronic device causing heat problems? Should have been obvious).

Despite the latest brouhaha, it remains to be seen if the non-rugged advocates will finally concede to reality.

Hot rumor#2: ARMY aviation shake-up

Traditional aviation personnel are among the people who have had the most difficulties adjusting to the unmanned era. In their eyes, the Air Force exists so pilots can fly. Predator UAVs may be cool, but are obviously secondary to the thrill one feels at operating a jet going Mach 2.

Similarly, aviation personnel in the ARMY have been unenthusiastic about Tactical UAVs (TUAV). While foot soldiers value their backpackable TUAVS, the ARMY aviation folks would rather forget these toys, and concentrate on helicopters and their few fixed wing assets.

According to rumor, the responsibility of TUAVs will be transferred from ARMY aviation to the ground pounders. Undoubtedly, the once unloved TUAVS will now be greeted with affection and enthusiasm by their end-users.

The military doing something smart? We could use a lot more rumors like that.

Heard a hot rumor lately? What were your impressions of AUVSI 2015?  Send your stories to editor@amrel.com.