Smartronix toughens Panasonic laptop

Although the solid magnesium case of Panasonic's CF-25 laptop makes it unusually tough, some military users are taking its ruggedization a step further with the assistance of start-up hardware and software designer Smartronix Inc.

Smartronix, based in California, Md., is providing users with extra protection for fragile PC Card cables and connectors as well as a removable, ruggedizable hard drive for the computer.

Panasonic, which has sold "many thousands" of the rugged laptops into the federal market, is evaluating Smartronix's technology for possible endorsement, said Jan O'HARA, federal region manager for Panasonic PC Co., Fairfax, Va.

"Doghouse Attachment"

Smartronix worked with the Navy's EA-6B tactical jamming aircraft program office to develop a "doghouse attachment," which is a small, roughly rectangular, metal container that clamps onto the side of the laptop and protects the computer's PC Card cables and connectors, said Alan Parris, Smartronix's vice president.

The EA-6B program plans to use the Panasonic computers equipped with the doghouse attachments as interface and control devices to new communications jammers (USQ-113s), satellite data receiver terminals and data transfer modems, explained Lt. Cmdr. Barbara Bell, the USQ-113 program manager at Patuxent River, Md. The Panasonic computers will replace nonruggedized models, which are used by the airplanes' Electronic Countermeasures Officers, known as ECMOs, until the systems can be integrated into the aircraft displays.

The Navy program has bought 108 of the laptops and plans to have the Smartronix devices on all of them to provide extra protection for the computers as crews enter and exit the aircraft, Bell said.

Smartronix also is developing a clamp-on Naval Tactical Data System (NTDS) interface to communicate with shipboard systems using the databus or to monitor the bus itself, Parris said. Because current NTDS interfaces require full-size PC Cards, maintenance personnel have to lug out bigger computers.

Smartronix is developing a combination PC Card, attachable enclosure to house the extra circuitry and accompanying software for the CF-25, he said.

A prototype is expected in September. NTDS signals will be accessed through rugged connectors mounted on the side of the enclosure.

Smartronix also has developed a CF-25 removable hard drive targeting classified applications. But the Army Communication-Electronics Command is going one step further and adding ruggedization features to the drive, which fits in the CF-25's multipocket bay.

In connection with its "operations on the move" concept to allow soldiers to operate computers while mobile, the Army plans to buy as many as 5,000 of Panasonic's next-generation Tough Book-27, the follow-up to CF-25, expected in September, said Ashok Jain, a Mitre Corp. technical adviser based at Fort Monmouth, N.J. One application will be on the Standard Integrated Command Post System, which is a mobile command and control (C2) shelter that can be mounted on a Humvee or tracked vehicle.

The C2 shelter application also will make use of the Smartronix removable hard drive, which will be further ruggedized by Army contractor GTE Government Systems for use in the new Tough Book, Jain said. He envisions the addition of "isolation" technology to absorb shock and dampen vibrations.

-- Adams is a free-lance writer based in Alexandria, Va. She can be reached at cbadams@erols.com.

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