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Managing Technology: Rough and Tumble

Rugged computers would be more popular if makers would update them.

The market for rugged computers designed to withstand severe environmental conditions has been dominated by the Defense Department, whose forces need tough computers to withstand the knocks, vibrations, sand and blazing hot temperatures in Iraq.

But some services have begun to buy fewer rugged computers in favor of standard laptops. The Marine Corps, for example, has found that plain vanilla, commercial computer hardware has performed well under the environmental stresses in Iraq, says Ken Beutel, program manager for computing platforms and service at the Marine Corps Systems Command. Off-the-shelf laptops have performed so well, that the command recently issued a solicitation for 57,000 of them, of which only 9,000 need to meet the rugged standard.

One reason could be cost. The price of standard laptops is far less than $1,000, but rugged computers typically cost nearly $4,000 each.

Nevertheless, the rugged computer still is a sought-after piece of equipment at Defense. When the Marines needed to equip tactical air control units, naval gunfire spot teams and artillery forward observer teams, who work with infantry units and call in supporting arms fire, they tapped DRS Technologies Inc., based in Parsippany, N.J., to supply its rugged tablet computers. DRS also won a $98.3 million contract this year to provide its JV5 ultra-rugged computer and display systems - mounted in vehicles that are part of the Army's Force XXI Battle Command, Brigade and Below program - and for its Blue Force Tracking technology, which shows soldiers the locations of friendly and enemy forces. Some of those systems are installed in Bradley fighting vehicles.

Standard computers have taken some market share from the rugged hardware, but tough computers always will be the product of choice when failure cannot be tolerated, says Tim Hill, product marketing manager for General Dynamics Itronix.Typical users of rugged Itronix laptops include special operations forces, which he cannot identify for national security reasons, and soldiers involved withWarfighter Information Network-Tactical, the Army's battlefield communications system.

The Army's Medical Communications for Combat Casualty Care (MC4) is one of the largest consumers of rugged computers, with more than 14,000 semi-rugged laptops at medical units primarily in Iraq and Af-ghanistan. MC4 integrates, fields and supports a health information management system for tactical medical forces. Lt. Col. Edward Clayson, commander of medical communications, says off-the-shelf computers do not meet Defense Department standards for battlefield conditions, including adverse weather, dust and smoke.

"Many tactical units are deployed in various harsh environments, [and] we need to have a semi-ruggedized system to meet the demands of soldiers' activities and elements of nature," he says.

MC4 uses Panasonic's Toughbook computers, says Peter Romness, the company's Army national sales manager. Toughbooks also are carried by Air Force joint terminal attack controllers, who provide forward air traffic control functions, and by the Air Force's Remotely Operated Video Enhanced Receiver suite of equipment, which provides video images of the battle space.

The rugged computer market could be expanding, as evidenced by Dell's introduction of its first rugged laptop in January 2007, rival vendors say. Hill, of Itronix, says Dell's interest "completely validates the space." Daniel Bounds, senior marketing manager for commercial laptops at Dell, knew customers were looking for rugged mobile devices, but in the past they had to rely on systems based on outdated technology that had limited performance and functionality, long delivery time frames and higher life-cycle costs. Dell built its rugged computer line around the guts of its commercial Latitude notebook series. The company believes it can sell the rugged computers to Defense and to civilian agencies such as the Forest Service and Border Patrol.

But if the rugged computer is to remain popular, manufacturers must update the systems, advises Melissa Payton, director of sales and marketing for Ridgeline Technology, a small woman-owned business that resells rugged computers from Panasonic and Itronix. They should have larger screens that work as well in full daylight as they do inside a tent and include readers for Defense's Common Access Card, she notes. Smaller rugged computers such as the Itronix GoBook MR-1, which is about the size of a small jewelry box, should have all the capability of larger machines, including the Microsoft XP operating system, Payton says.

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