RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT

Firms Pushing Commercial Systems to Lure Defense Customers

5/1/2011
By Grace V. Jean
It was not all that long ago when only the elite forces would grab commercial technologies off the shelf and modify them for military purposes rather than wait for the Pentagon to churn through bureaucratic red tape and budgetary cycles to develop the hardware five to 10 years down the road. 

Now that speeding technologies to the battlefield — and procuring them at lower costs — have become paramount concerns, the Defense Department increasingly is buying commercial-based systems and adapting them for the fight. Pentagon weapons that previously cost millions can be bought on the cheap, for hundreds of thousands of dollars, or less.  

In an effort to attract defense customers, companies are trying to adapt commercial products to the Pentagon’s needs.

At a military system conference in San Diego, wide-screen televisions arranged three high and three across formed a video-wall being hawked by Hiperwall, an Irvine, Calif.-based firm. The flashy presentation caught eyes as patrons entered the exhibit hall. Though the wall-as-display concept is decades old, expensive hardware and connectivity issues have stymied its adoption and growth, officials said. A glance behind such walls has often revealed why: The tangled guts comprising cables and connections spill out from monitors into processors, matrix switches, amplifiers and routers.

“Come take a look at what’s behind ours,” invited CEO Jeff Greenberg. Hiperwall’s software-based technology involves surprisingly few cables leading from the monitors to a single black box that resembles a home wireless router.

“Mostly what we’ve done is taken out the complexity and taken out the cost,” he said. “We can do everything that hardware-based video-walls can do, but with a reduced footprint, thermal signature, power consumption, complexity, cable clutter and most importantly, reduced cost.”

Almost every major display manufacturer offers monitors with embedded computers for digital signage applications, Greenberg explained. Each monitor has two connectors coming out of it, one for power and one for Ethernet. The cables run into an ordinary Ethernet switch.

During demonstrations, officials showed visitors how they could place on the wall any number of digital items using a laptop computer. Just as one would resize and control images and applications on personal computer screens, company representatives manipulated maps, documents, slideshows, movies and live feeds ranging from teleconferencing video to a real-time air traffic website.

Hiperwall’s software takes the source feed, captured through a commercial video card, and streams it up to the wall, Greenberg said.

The system, originally funded by the National Science Foundation as an academic research project, is in use by police stations in Seoul, South Korea; an unmanned air vehicle control center in Africa; a Brussels airport; and a law enforcement center in Sacramento, Calif.

“We’re here to make sure more people in the military are aware of what we’ve got,” said Greenberg. “A lot of them have a need for this, but they look at traditional hardware-based walls and they say, ‘Wow, that’s way too complex. That’s way too expensive. We’re going to live without it.’ Now they don’t have to because we’ve made it simple enough to install, simple enough to use and affordable.”

The popularity of smartphones is pushing the Defense Department toward adopting commercial operating systems. Android is becoming the platform of choice and companies are developing defense applications to run on the system.

“Everybody is throwing their hat into this ring,” said Jim Curtain, program manager of defense systems at Product Development Technologies, Inc., a mechanical design and consulting firm based in Lake Zurich, Ill.

But computer engineers have encountered challenges.

“Android is a fairly new platform to develop on, and there is a shortage of really talented developers” who are familiar with the system, Curtain pointed out. With all the money and time being invested in the effort, however, he believes defense apps and other software products will start hitting the market later this year.

Military customers in the meantime have begun to express increased interest in the disposability of electronic gadgets.

“Before, they wanted to repair their gear. Now soldiers want something they can throw away,” Curtain said. The shift is being driven by the advances they see in the consumer telecommunications industry, where iPhones and Android handsets can be bought for less than $500 apiece. The phones typically have a one- to two-year lifespan before consumers replace them with new models.

The evolving mindset will cause traditional prime contractors to reexamine their business models, many with roots that were sown during the Cold War — a time when military hardware development often superseded the commercial sector. In battlefield healthcare, the military medical community still tends to be 12 months ahead of the consumer marketplace. But in other areas, the Defense Department is lagging behind the open market by a good 18 months, Curtain said.

Topics: Business Trends, Doing Business with the Government, Science and Engineering Technology

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