Role: Field Service Representative • Where: Eastern Afghanistan • When: 2012-2013
Combat-ready smartphone apps
The Taliban had nearly surrounded us. We used the handheld (TransApps device) to identify the enemy’s position and fired directly at them. If we would not have had the device to pinpoint the enemy, lives could have been lost. (Source: nist.gov)
In 2010 DARPA began a 4-year project to make smartphone apps for soldiers to use in combat. I joined the project in 2012. By that time they already had thousands of phones deployed in combat and a dozen apps including:
- A military mapping program, with offline satellite imagery. This is by far the most important app.
- A heat map to show where previous patrols spent the most time. This is important as insurgents like to place bombs where they have seen patrols before.
- An almanac showing local sunrise and sunset times. Useful for planning patrols and equipment.
- A blast and fragmentation distance calculator. Used when calling for airstrikes or artillery.
- A weapons and munitions recognition guidebook. Used when examining insurgent weapon caches.
- A high-value target face recognition database. Useful for comparing against detained suspects.
- …and many more
An innovative design and development process (for the military)
The Transformative Apps program will develop a diverse array of militarily-relevant software applications… The objectives are to transition the resulting systems to end-users in the Services and to foster a new model for rapidly and effectively acquiring, introducing, maintaining and enhancing software. (Source: DARPA)
Most defense projects use a requirements-heavy, waterfall-style procurement and development process. In other words: a lot of bureaucracy. The result? A very long time between a soldier having a need, and the government getting something in his hands.
Transapps looked to how startups in the private sector work. The result? Using an agile development model. Using a user-centric design process. And most important of all, getting devices into the hands of users as fast as possible.
…compared to the alternative
Compare this to the US Army’s Land Warrior program. It intended to have similar features as Transapps. Though it started in the mid-1990’s, the first time it made it into combat was in 2007 Iraq.
The program was later canceled, but restarted again in 2008 as Nett Warrior. Nett Warrior fielded their first devices for combat to Afghanistan in late 2013.
My role as a field service representative (FSR)
It was my job as an FSR to be a representative of the project on the ground in Afghanistan. My goal was to get phones into the hands of soldiers and get their feedback to the development team. This included:
- Initial fielding of phones to soldiers at their bases.
- Training them how to use the apps.
- Revisiting sites to provide support, software updates, and replacement hardware.
- Interviewing users after combat missions, sending reports back to the US-based dev team.
On to the next adventure
The job was sometimes stressful, sometimes exciting, and always rewarding. The feedback from soldiers was overwhelmingly positive. I myself would have loved to have such a device during my USMC tour of Afghanistan.
After a year though, I grew tired of living in a war zone. Coincidentally, my former employer—Bohemia Interactive—had started on their next generation product. They were looking for someone to lead their design team on VBS3 and asked if I would move to Prague to fill the role. I’d never been there before and decided to take it on as my next adventure.
Links for Further Info
- NIST Team Honored for Work on Military Smartphone Apps, Security – National Institute of Standards and Technology – 3 Sep 2014
- Inside the Military’s Secretive Smartphone Program – Gizmodo – 5 Aug 2014
- DARPA Pioneers Tactical Mobile Devices for Soldiers – US Department of Defense News – 11 Dec 2013
- DARPA to create app store of military mobile apps that run on rugged smartphones and tablets – Military & Aerospace Electronics – 29 Apr 2013