DOD tries on wearable computers

Not content with handheld computers, military computer users moving through confined spaces such as tank turrets and ship scuttles are demanding something different: wearable processors.

A small number of vendors have developed wearable computers that combine headset video and voice activation software in a package weighing 5 pounds or less. These computers enable soldiers, maintenance crews and logistics personnel unable to tote a conventional processor to reap the benefits of automation without the bulk.

Various models can be attached to the waist, legs or wrists. One built by Computing Devices International (CDI) is flexible enough to be worn like a belt, presenting a minimal profile.

Called the Wearable, CDI's unit is 18 inches long, 6 inches high and 1 inch thick. The product weighs 2-1/2 pounds with a battery, the company said. Although one of its four PC Card slots is used for a hard drive, the others can accommodate interchangeable cards such as encryption, Global Positioning System and wireless local-area network or cellular phone interfaces.

The computer, which will enter production next month, features a 75 MHz 486 engine with 8M to 24M of RAM, according to CDI product manager Jerry Hess.

BBN Corp., meanwhile, is developing a Body LAN protocol for wireless connectivity of wearable PC components and peripherals. BBN is working on the protocol as part of the Advanced Research Projects Agency's Tactical Information Assistance program. The company is also developing a very low-power computer.

The Body LAN is a low-power RF protocol—in the 30-microwatt range—for short distances, said Tom Balackadar, department manager for BBN Systems and Technologies.

The idea is "to connect the [wearable] computer to devices, sensors, actuators and display without wires," Balackadar said. The protocol, which also aims to eliminate interference between computers, could support up to 56 elements on a single network.

BBN is also working on a foot soldier's wearable, weighing no more than 2 pounds. The company's Computer Radio will use the Body LAN internally and a higher-power RF link to the outside world. Such a device eventually could enable soldiers "to throw their old radios away," Balackadar said.

Bigger Wearables

Texas Microsystems Inc. has developed a rugged handheld called the Hardbody. Although no government customers are wearing it yet, the computer could be fitted to a belt or backpack or strapped to the user's leg, said regional sales manager Bill Taylor.

At 3 pounds, with batteries, the Hardbody features a 75 MHz 486, a 260M hard drive, 8M to 32M of RAM and two PC Card slots. The 8M version, with battery, lists for $3,975.

Some of these units will be used as wearable map display computers for Marine Corps helicopter pilots under an ARPA program.

Unlike CDI, computer vendor Intervision rejected the "belt-mounted" approach as "too intrusive," said Karen Altireiri, systems analyst at Intervision. The company's System 6 computer can be hooked to the user's belt. The product weighs 4 pounds with a battery and includes a 33 MHz 486, 8M to 16M of RAM, 20M of flash memory and dual PC Card ports.

An explicitly militarized product is Litton Data Systems' Dismounted Soldier System Unit (DSSU). The 4-1/2-pound device, with battery, is worn in a pouch that attaches to the soldier's shoulder straps, according to Keith McNally, director of rapid deployment systems.

The unit includes a 50 MHz 486 processor, display and dual-channel tactical modem, McNally said. The DSSU uses a "remote mouse worn on the chest."

A key differentiator of this product is its electromagnetic interference resistance, according to the requirements of Mil-Std 461, McNally said.

Rockwell Corp. also makes a 3-pound computer called Trekker, which can "fit on a belt," according to Scott Clark, business development manager at Rockwell. Units are being used by the Navy for helicopter maintenance and by the Air Force for C-5A and C-17 airlifter maintenance.

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Adams is a free-lance writer based in Washington, D.C.

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