Nuclear Regulatory Commission gives tablet PCs a test run

Spurred by the recent encouragement from the Barack Obama administration to explore mobile technologies and bring-your-own-device strategies, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is getting ready to send tablets into the field as it oversees the construction of new nuclear power plants.

The tablets will help NRC personnel track information and communicate more easily throughout the construction inspection processes, offering better mobility and faster access, according to NRC CIO Darren Ash.

“The nature of that work – in heavy construction areas – doesn’t really lend itself to traditional IT tools such as laptops,” said Ash, adding that staff would use the laptops to make notes, take pictures and videos, access documentation and reference material and exchange information with colleagues and headquarters – all routine parts of the job, and all done through the NRC network.

But the NRC isn't yet sold on the idea, with particular concern about the devices' ruggedness and security. The tablets will first be used in a pilot program in the agency’s Region II, headquartered in Atlanta, on construction sites in Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee. With approval recently granted, Ash said NRC will field a range of tablets in the coming weeks for employees to try out on the three construction sites and later report back on.

“The nature of work means we have to focus on physical protection – not just the screen but the device itself. It might be something as simple as a harder type of case or protective shell on the device itself,” Ash said. “This isn’t a traditional office space with someone with a tablet PC going from meeting to meeting. This is a rough, tough environment, and we want to make sure to physically protect the asset.”

Protecting information is also a top priority, Ash noted. Some of the tablets being tested already come with certification meeting Federal Information Processing Standard (FIPS) Publication 140-2 requirements; in others the NRC will consider adding that certification, he said.

Across the government, agencies, buoyed by federal support for BYOD, are trying out various mobile devices, including tablets. At the Defense Department, tablets have been used in classrooms and for training since last year, with theater experimentation following suit.

The NRC is looking to the experience of other agencies for ideas on how best to deploy the tablets. According to Rear Adm. David Simpson, Defense Information Systems Agency vice director, DISA is trying tablets and other mobile devices on unclassified networks. Currently, 300 DISA users are in the mobility program, a number that in the second phase will grow to 1,500 and move into classified networks as the agency builds a mobile device management system that controls and ensures access, he said.

While Ash said he hasn’t worked with DOD on tablets so far, he has been working with a number of other agencies to share ideas and lessons.

That collaboration will continue as NRC launches the program that Ash said he hopes will eventually expand into other parts of the agency and other uses.

“It’s a first step – it’s an opportunity to learn, and after a couple months, evaluate. We’re not focusing on one exclusive one; want to get feedback from staff on what’s the best one and see what’s possible,” said Ash, who declined to specify which tablets are part of the pilot. “As we grow and learn I can logically see us using these devices to provide information to our systems, maybe potentially creating applications, but we have to start somewhere. This opens the door to other possibilities, one step at a time.”

About the Author

Amber Corrin is a former staff writer for FCW and Defense Systems.


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