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Publication Date: 08/1/2011
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Advances in Tactical Radio Accessories
Keypad display unit provides versatility and ruggedness needed by the military.

Just as in any line of work, effective communication is a must within the military. However, unlike most work scenarios, soldiers' ability to communicate effectively can be a matter of life and death. Troops must be able to relay timely messages through a secure network in order to ensure safety and success.

But while consumer technologies like cell phones and computers advance at a breathtaking pace, military communications move to the beat of a slower drummer. With a more drawn-out design cycle and approval process, not to mention information security concerns, military radios and accessories still evolve much more slowly than smart phones and tablet PCs. But recent advances in information security and the adaptation of a more commercial business model within Department of Defense (DoD), procurement has managed to allow advanced technologies to reach the hands of our soldiers faster than ever before.

Tech-Savvy Soldiers
As smart phones and tablet PCs continue to impact the next generation of tech-savvy soldiers, the DoD is working to bring these technologies into their missions. In previous years, narrow-band radios limited the effectiveness of voice and data sharing. But new wideband networks are now allowing all military personnel to see and hear the same information, giving them a clearer picture of what is going on around them. Advanced tactical radios, such as the Harris AN/PRC-117G, provide mobile ad-hoc networked data capabilities down to the soldier level, delivering mission-critical data in the field. As these smarter technologies develop, radio accessories are playing an important role in how networked data is shared by various types of military personnel. Different branches and units within the military have their own user-specific needs, creating a wide variety of accessory options for use with tactical radios. This allows each soldier to carry what he or she needs, leaving unnecessary tools aside. The range of add-ons can be vast — from GPS and soldier-worn cameras to more advanced accessories like biometric sensors that monitor a soldier's health, or a live UAV feed, viewable in a pair of glasses or on a wristwatch. With the proper additions, these radios essentially become "wearable computers", allowing for even easier, lighter and more mobile access to information.

Android-Based Tablets
So when can we expect these ideas to become reality? It is closer than you think. Accessories such as Android-based tablets are making their way into units throughout the military. The adoption of more consumer-like accessories has the potential to not only keep soldiers more informed, but also safer. Because soldiers will be familiar with how to operate these devices, such as Android-based phones, there is a shorter learning curve and less risk for user error. Prototypes are starting to be unveiled and we could see these more advanced communication methods being tested in the field as early as late summer.

One major concern in recent years has been the exposure of such fragile components to extremes of weather and terrain, two consistent realities of military life. Designing for rugged environments while keeping up with the latest in technology and user interface simplicity can often be a challenge for defense product development teams. With the recent introduction of the first Android-based handsets that match military specifications, such worry is a thing of the past. Newer devices that conform to rigorous government standards combine the tough materials that soldiers rely on with the sleek form factor that they've never experienced with DoD-procured equipment before.

Intuitive Operation
Leveraging the Android-based platform to bring these capabilities to fruition results in an extremely powerful, technologically advanced system. The U.S. military's embrace of Android has given developers the tools necessary to make applications useful for soldiers, intuitive in stressful situations, and inventive when compared with previous approaches. Whereas in the past, most soldiers were stuck with a multitude of devices — each for a separate function — now they can combine them all into a single unit that fits neatly in their uniforms. The open-standard interface facilitates customizable options and future upgradability through the use of applications and functionality. The result: information dominance on the battlefield.

The development of tactical radio accessories is a challenge for product development teams. Often, accessories are device-specific due to product complexity and engineering integration efforts. As development progresses and more open standard platforms such as Android are used, these information-enhancing accessories will continue to enable future capabilities.

Devices such as the keypad display unit (KDU) allow a user to remotely see the front panel of their radio when it's packed in their backpacks or placed in other hard-to-reach places. This accessory device enables the user to not only see what's on the front panel of their radio, but also other important information such as situational awareness data or chat messaging from other radio users in the network. The keypad display unit also allows user control of the radio in order to change radio channel presets, volume, and configuration information when required.

The military radio will continue to lead the way in in-field defense communications. It's now up to product designers to find ways to expand the radio's capabilities, making the life of a soldier not only easier, but safer.

Contact: Product Development Technologies, One Corporate Drive, Suite 110, Lake Zurich, IL 60047 847-821-3000 fax: 847-821-3020 E-Mail: Web:

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