Army's Go Mobile puts big computing power into soldiers' pockets

The Army is readying a mobile kit based on smart phones that will give soldiers access to the online resources of the Army Knowledge Online portal from anywhere in the world.

The Army’s ranks these days are filled with a new kind of soldier — tech-savvy and sophisticated, people who grew up playing with PlayStations and Nintendo the way earlier generations played with pop guns and Erector Sets.

Army officials are tapping into the ingenuity of its young workforce and responding to their predisposition for smarter gadgets at the same time by developing an array of Go Mobile devices — new communications and conferencing devices that can fit into a soldier’s pocket while going easy on the service’s pocketbook.

Go Mobile gear

Take a look at the Army's Go Mobile devices,  including smartphones, video goggles, portable projectors, printers, solar chargers and more.

That effort reached a new milestone in late October with the approval of an initial set of smart phones that, with other pocket-sized accessories, offers a way for soldiers to access the Army Knowledge Online portal, a repository of online information, distance-learning tools, e-mail and other resources for 2.6 million Army users. The Web-based service is now part of a broader service known as Defense Knowledge Online.

The phones that can access the AKO portal approved for initial fielding are the HTC Ozone, Samsung Epix, Palm Treo Pro and HTC Touch Pro, said Maj. Keith Parker, assistant project manager for Go Mobile AKO/DKO. "We are reviewing iPhone and Android for future fielding," he said.

The Go Mobile program is being engineered to support a variety of mobile platforms and common wireless carriers. "We're tech-agnostic," said Col. Earl Noble, AKO program manager.  The Go Mobile program is part of the Army’s Program Executive Office for Enterprise Information System.

But the real potential of the Go Mobile program is in providing military personnel access to their AKO/DKO accounts wirelessly.  The days of luggable laptops might be over soon, replaced in this case with smart phones that pack almost as much computing power.

The AKO portal offers unlimited storage space, Parker said. AKO's ability to store unclassified documents, photos and other electronic files has come in handy since the Defense Department banned the use of removable drives and thumb drives, he said. “And the boundaries of the mobile spectrum are limitless.”

That capability proved particularly useful at the LandWarNet conference in August for a senior National Guard official who discovered that a slide presentation stored on a compact disc had become corrupted.

“Maj. Parker, can you find it?” he asked. “It’s a 14.7M file.”

Parker tapped into the AKO Web site, downloaded the presentation, and the session went off without a hitch.

However, what sets the Go Mobile program apart is a combination of compact devices that lets users view, modify, present and print their work from virtually anywhere they can get a wireless signal. In addition to a choice of smart phones, the Go Mobile assemble includes five devices, contained in a solar-powered backpack from Voltaic Systems, including:

  • Myvu Solo video goggles, which work as a personal media viewer. Soldiers can privately watch training videos through the goggles and listen to audio through attached ear buds.
  • The battery-powered Optoma Pico pocket projector, which is smaller than a cell phone and lets users project full-sized presentations onto any available surface. “You could run it from a mud hut,” Parker said.
  • The Celio Redfly companion, a two-pound device that displays whatever is on its companion smart phone on an eight-inch screen with a full QWERTY keyboard. Because the Redfly has no operating system, processor or memory, users can’t save data on it. If it’s lost or falls into enemy territory, there’s no harm done.
  • The Planon Printstik, which has a 50-page capacity. The thermal printer is designed for “quick reactionary type things,” Parker said, not publication-quality documents. Even so, Parker said he once left a page in direct sunlight for a week or so, and the print didn’t fade.
  • A mini solar charger that folds to about the size of a computer mouse and can charge all of those devices. The charger takes a few hours to fully charge but can run the devices for about eight hours.

Most of the devices cost about $200 each, with the whole kit costs about $1,050.

"Each piece of the Go Mobile kit has to meet stringent Defense Department information assurance requirements," Parker said. The project is getting ready for its first phase of deployment for garrison training. The next phase will be the tactical environment, which will require hardening of the equipment to military specifications, including both Mil-Std 810-F and Mil-Std 810-G requirements, Parker said.

The Army is reviewing a number of mobile phones for the kit. “We’re just at the beginning of where the mobile space is going,” Parker said. The first two smart phones to be approved, the Palm Treo Pro and HTC Touch Pro, run the Windows Mobile platform, he said. The Army is in discussions with Motorola and Apple about adding the Verizon Wireless Droid and iPhone, respectively.

Good Technology provides the Army with its Good for Government server, which sits behind the firewall in the AKO data center, said John Herrema, chief marketing officer for Good Technology. There it interfaces with AKO's back-end systems, including its messaging platform and directory infrastructure.

Good also provides a network operations center (NOC), based in a secure cloud environment, that communicates with the AKO users' mobile devices. The NOC intelligently bridges those two connections -- the data center and the mobile devices -- so that "you don't have to open up any inbound ports, so there's no way an outside hacker can try to connect in," Herrema said.

All that data is encrypted behind the firewall by the Good for Government server, using 192-bit Advanced Encryption Standard encryption, "which is, for all intents and purposes, unbreakable," Herrema said. The data remains encrypted over the air and also at rest, he said.

"The net result of all this is that you have an environment where users can send and receive messages while they are in no way exposed to attack," Herrema said.

The phones were rigorously tested before they received approval, Parker said. Users will be able to buy an approved smart phone and a service plan from their wireless carrier. After completing a specialized registration process, qualified users will then be able to download Go Mobile's customized software. The middleware for the project was developed by Good Technology, a third-party vendor.

One of the striking features of the Go Mobile project is that the Army is actively seeking input from soldiers. It’s been a significant shift, Parker said. “The soldiers tell us what they want,” he said. Some of them are 19-year-olds who were writing mobile apps before they joined the service.

The AKO software that fuels the program is hardware independent, Parker said.

Army personnel can get to the AKO portal from anywhere in the world. Parker demonstrated AKO on his smart phone by launching the Opera browser and going to the AKO portal from www.us.army.mil, then entering his user name and password. AKO uses two-factor authentication. In addition to user name and password, users must answer a series of questions.

The portal showed him announcements, to-do lists, news, messages and alerts. It authenticated Parker’s credentials and showed him the information he needed to see. Borrowing some of the features of social networking, the portal lets users post status updates. All of that can be accessed from a smart phone, laptop PC or desktop PC.

The online world of AKO offers a wide range of services to its registered users, including career management and benefits applications, classified content, distance-learning classes and access to the Army White Pages, a worldwide people locator service that provides contact information for anyone with an AKO account. More than 2,600 free courses are available through AKO, including 80 certification programs. There’s also a friends and family feature that lets users sponsor an account for a family member.

AKO also authenticates DOD’s Common Access Cards to the user’s phone, Parker said. However, no data resides on the phone. That’s one of the beauties of the Go Mobile project — should someone leave the smart phone in an airport or if it falls into enemy hands, AKO can remotely wipe the device clean.

“If somebody gets ahold of your notebook, you’ve lost everything,” he said. “If someone gets ahold of this, you’ve lost nothing. There’s nothing there.”

Although it is in the testing phase, the Go Mobile program should be operational by early next year, Parker said.

The program is ultimately about the convergence of smart phones, personal digital assistants and phones, Parker said. He said that when he used to get a PowerPoint slide on his BlackBerry, he would need to wait until he got back to his hotel, home or office to download it. Now he can access it fully via AKO.

“Our goal is to provide enterprise service and ubiquitous access,” Parker said. “It’s a portal in your pocket.”

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