Edward Tessen Tanaka
Jan 3, 2012

DARPA, military smartphone apps and UAVs: Integrating consumer UI and OS into aerospace R&D

Imagine an iPad application that allows a soldier to pilot an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) fitted with an inexpensive metal detector several inches off the ground over a large field near an enemy position. Within minutes, a complete map on the iPad shows the location of over 4 dozen hidden land mines. The soldier maneuvers the plane with the simplicity and ease of playing his favorite video game. He and his platoon move on toward their primary objective, navigating the field without any injuries or losses. The unit commander, using another mobile application on her cell phone, has already distributed an image of the findings in the same manner as when she sends text messages back home. Secondary teams receive the images as do their counterparts in the air who are looking for a clean helicopter landing zone.

Sound like the future?

Not according to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). DARPA, best known by many in the private sector for their early involvement in the architecture and funding research that eventually resulted in today's modern Internet, is now focusing its attention on mobile military apps.

To achieve success, DARPA is actively seeking mobile application programmers and partner companies to participate in their Adaptable Sensor System (ADAPT) program. The ADAPT program is essentially a mash-up ecosystem -- put in place by DARPA -- that facilitates the development of commercial mobile applications and devices that can then be adapted to military vehicles, weapon systems and logistical support devices through the graphical user interface of an existing commercial mobile device.

Creativity is essential to this sort of unusual business relationship, which gives the situation an unusual twist as it is an attribute commonly lacking in the mindset of traditional defense contractors.  Likewise, private industrial and interface designers are not often used to the sort of durability issues that are prominent in the thinking of defense contractors. Hence, this marriage of both private and military sensibilities affords DARPA a unique edge in this modern development of military apps.  

Unconventional partnerships based on common technologies are rapidly being developed due to tightened budgets, the pragmatic nature of mobile applications and current asymmetric battlefield conditions. Rather than presenting an unwieldy cost, these portable device technologies instead create lucrative and practical opportunities.  Crafted with robust mobile applications, these modern apps offer new revenues, reduce research and development cost, create venues for intellectual property and bring prototypes to market and battlefields faster.

Brokered by agencies like DARPA, partnerships of this nature are a prime business opportunity for private and start-up ventures to take their knowledge of the mobile application space to establish revenue streams they traditionally could not access: defense and national spending. In strategic terms as related to private corporations, these long-term revenue streams can lead to a considerably higher company valuation because once an application is integrated into a defense project, the revenue stream is a forecastable event with a long-term event horizon.

On the other side of the equation, the large defense contractors and government consultancies should consider partnering with commercial mobile application companies through direct investments, formal partnerships or the formation of lab-based hybrid application shops that share intellectual resources between the two companies. This will permit larger players to address their own business model selling deficiencies -- as related to creativity and innovation -- by giving them immediate partners in the mobile application and device space. It will also give them a chance to assume market leadership (or more importantly in our social-media-as-public-relations age, thought leadership) of the next mobile platform for the controlling and management of unmanned fighting and aerial vehicles.

For example, NASA recently partnered with Samsung to create smartphone-controlled satellites that help astronauts with their daily tasks aboard spacecraft. Last month marked the first successful flight of one of these satellites, which are equipped with a headset run-off of an Android-based operating system and only slightly modified from the model available to consumers in retail stores (the GSM chip was removed to avoid conflict with the International Space Station's electronics). As of right now, the robots act as astronaut assistants, performing basic tasks like taking pictures and videos of the interior of the ISS and completing surveys. NASA says that this is just the beginning of the possibilities of this technology and that in the future it will use other types of smartphone integration as well.

Army Rangers, currently overseas, are assessing a device called the GD300. This device, designed by General Dynamics C4 Systems and running on a modified Android operating system, can be paired with an existing military radio to transmit graphics and even text messages to other personnel in the field. The relationship of the two devices is very similar in concept to the tethering of a wireless device to another piece of hardware utilized by many people in the civilian mobile marketplace.

During previous studies which ultimately led to the development of the CD300, soldiers stated that they wished the mobile systems worked more like the personal cell phones they used when at home. In brief, the mobile applications used by individuals in their private lives have become the standards for usability, thus setting precedents for mobile applications in the military space in which habit-based learning is critical to success (and survival). Therefore, a company that can bridge this understanding gap will have the advantages of being a market leader in a new field by leveraging their existing understanding of mobile applications.

This, in business terms, is a superior value proposition. In military terms, it is strategic superiority.


Commercial mobile application companies -- having proven their skills at making mobile applications that shoot imaginary 'angry birds' out of a catapult at a fortress occupied by imaginary laughing pigs -- now have a chance to use the same software principles of usability, information design and interaction design to work in the real-world government space. Since the traditional bid development model utilized by the US government encourages closed platforms -- initially for reasons of national security, but now for reasons of incumbency contract control by the large defense contractors -- it works as a double-edged sword when using new technologies that have strong potential like mobile applications. Because of this, companies both inside and outside the beltway should consider the advantages of developing mobile applications to solve military problems. The solutions are often already out there, they have simply been developed under a different but parallel context by Corporate America.