Consumer convenience drives Defence applications

iPads, social networking and game engines come to the fore as the armed forces rethink technology

An iPad with a visualised operating theatre created in a game engine is one possible future application (Credit: Department of Defence)

An iPad with a visualised operating theatre created in a game engine is one possible future application (Credit: Department of Defence)

Game engines, alternative reality and Apple-inspired mobility gear are among the technologies likely to be used in the near future in Australia’s Defence Force as armed forces come to grips with new methods of warfighting.

Speaking at the spatial@gov conference in Canberra this week, the Department of Defence’s chief technical officer, Matt Yannopoulos, said greater use of technology was needed to ensure warfighters were provided with up-to-date intelligence and the ability to do their jobs more effectively.

“We want to break things into services, we want to be able to move more quickly,” he said. “That comes back to a question of how do you deal with slow acquisition cycle, and the ability to serve newer capabilities to the warfighter.

“My view is the way we do that is by service enablement, by being able to publish new services more quickly, building out the core infrastructure that enables us to do that and then hopefully we can adopt the same sorts of timings that you see Apple being able to achieve with new apps and the like.”

Those new services, according to Yannopoulos, could include visualising operating theatres on an iPad by using game engines, using alternative reality goggles to overlay information on an environment and potentially a hardened and wearable iPad-like mobility device that provides all manner of information to the soldier on-demand.

Among the hundreds of projects currently under planning or implementation in Defence, 140 require geospatial information, something the agency is hoping to consolidate to a single dataset. It isn’t clear yet, however, whether the department will adhere to the whole-of-government arrangements for imagery currently used by smaller agencies, or whether it will construct its own.

The key, nevertheless, is to provide front-line warfighters with higher-level technology than is currently available, and move away from the paper maps, journals and physical “mud maps” used to visualise the surrounding area.

“They point out the topography with some pieces of string,” Yannopoulos said. “One of the guys I was talking to put a Coke can down and that’s a water tower.”

While he affirmed the lack of technology on the ground was not losing the war for Australia, his comments adhere to those made earlier during the year, in which he slammed his department’s ICT policy as “not best practice”.

“The bad guys in Afghanistan are using iPhones and applications and multiple SIM cards and are going much faster than we are," he said.

Also speaking at the spatial@gov conference, Australian Army and Headquarters Forces Command Brigadier, Jeffrey Sengleman, confirmed the armed forces needed to “try and find a way that gives [soldiers] that technology advantage as simply and as a intuitively as the iPad sort of conveys, but without conveying all that complexity.

“That’s what I really, honestly do believe we need to do,” he said.

“We’ve started the journey and I believe that within five years you’ll see a quite substantially different warfighting organisation that is better atuned to these things that really allows our young people to use these systems as intuitively as they do Twitter, iPhone, iPad and all those sort of things.”

The push from Australian armed forces follows a similar tact to the US military, which has attempted to source externally developed apps for the iPhone and iPod touch for use in calculations, language translation and even as remotes for robots. The “Apps for the Army” contest, launched by the military this year, awarded a total $US30,000 prize money to developers who submitted applications for maintaining soldiers’ personal health, visualising map data and recruiting potential soldiers.

The US military also bought 2000 PlayStation 3 consoles earlier in the year to build a supercomputer with a reported 500 teraflops of computing power, after Microsoft allegedly refused to provide its competing Xbox platform for military use.

However, Sengleman said he didn’t believe either country was yet on its way to a more convenient environment and Yannopoulos denied Defence was being driven by Apple’s latest marketing initiatives.

“I’d say we’re looking at the consumer market and saying, well, they’re relatively low cost so if they break, throw them out and get another one,” he said. “The lesson is probably in how the usability is increasing to make them a good tool of trade.”

He also countered claims by bank chiefs recently that convenience and security did not go hand in hand in delivering services, saying even high-grade security didn’t need to be “over-the-top”, and could be accessed easily if implemented correctly.

Yannopoulos’ push for easier to use technology comes as part of a wider reform program to see a “single information environment” delivered to both the war environment and the department’s back-office staff, including virtualised thin clients and greater consolidation of IT projects.

(See the full interview with Matt Yannopoulos)

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Tags AppleAustralian Defence Force (ADF)game engines

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