From the title of this article you might be envisioning some cool science fiction story about legions of robots defending the galaxy. Unfortunately it is actually about soldiers using smartphones, which in its own way is still kind of cool. It is also definitely not fiction.
The Department of Defense has accepted for further development and testing a prototype Android-based military smartphone developed by technology nonprofit firm MITRE. Thanks to military grade hardening, the Joint Battle Command-Platform weighs in at two pounds. I seriously doubt that the Pentagon will be able to snap them up at $199 with a two-year data plan from Verizon. However the Army’s current development program in this category, called Nett Warrior tacks on 12 to 15 pounds to a soldier’s kit. Moreover since MITRE’s design uses standard components internally, it stands a chance of being a money saver.
But what would soldiers actually use the smartphones for? Communications of course is the first answer. Following close behind is (i) mapping and (ii) ‘blue force locator’, meaning helping a soldier know where their fellow forces are. Beyond that, an open development platform permits a whole range of apps that one might regard as more interesting than critical. Recently the Army held an Apps 4 Army challenge among soldiers and civilian Army Contractors. The winning results included many creative ideas, including (i) foreign language phrase-books with audio output for situations where interpreters were unavailable, (ii) guides to poisonous plants and animals specific to any particular region, (iii) a GPS linked data-entry and mapping program for reporting needs in humanitarian and disaster relief missions, and (iv) a program that will automatically collect data and possibly report when an extreme shock like an IED is detected.
Some writers commenting on this story presented it as Android winning against the iPhone. I suspect the discussion never occurred. Consider the legal challenges of anybody outside of Apple trying to build a different version of the iPhone. The advantage of an open platform is that, if you have a notion to build a version of it with a slide-out keyboard, or two screens or yes even a military grade unit, then nobody is going to stop you, least of all an army of lawyers from Cupertino. In addition whenever possible (which isn’t always) the military prefers open systems. They would rather prefer that if they source the first generation of a piece of electronics from Honeywell that they can, for example, have Raytheon compete for the next generation. In that respect the military isn’t that different than many other large enterprises.