U.S. Air Force uses tablet PCs to direct air strikes

The U.S. Air Force has taken tablet PCs higher than Bill Gates ever imagined and so far has not encountered the “blue screens” cursed by ground-bound Windows users.

The Air Force quickly adapted a commercial tablet PC to provide critical targeting and navigation information to aircrews operating over Afghanistan in Operation Enduring Freedom, fielding pen-input systems to combat aircrews in just three months. It’s a turnaround tough in the corporate world and almost unheard of in the government where acquisition and deployment cycles are measured in years. The system also can go a long way toward preventing the kind of “friendly fire” incidents that resulted in casualties in Operation Desert Storm and early in the Afghanistan campaign.

The Windows 2000-based tablet PC system has experienced “no blue screens” despite rigorous in-flight testing that put it through better than 3G aerial maneuvers, according to Robert Severino, president of Position Integrity LLC, a Los Gatos, Calif.-based company that developed the Pilot/Aircrew Management (PACMAN) system.

The Air Expeditionary Battelab, located at Mountain Home Air Force Base, near Boise, Idaho, turned the PACMAN from an 18-month development project into a fielded, though still prototype, combat system, according to Severino, who showcased PACMAN in the Air Force booth at the annual Armed Forces Communications-Electronics Association conference here.

Capt. Erik Jordan, director of communications programs at the Battelab, said the quick deployment of PACMAN illustrated the Battelab’s mission to “leverage commercial technology and get it in the hands of users as quickly as possible, avoiding the sometime long delays,” of the standard military acquisition cycle. Severino said Position Integrity received the PACMAN contract last December and under rush order delivered 20 prototype units to an F-15 squadron at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in March. That squadron is now supporting the Afghanistan campaign.

Severino said PACMAN is designed to provide digital information to crews of Air Force aircraft that lack such systems, including the F-15, the A-10 attack aircraft as well as Army AH64, UH60 and CH47 helicopters. Position Integrity built PACMAN to run on a tablet PC from Fujitsu Ltd. in Tokyo and to be worn by a crewman as a kneepad computer. This, Severino said, makes ergonomic sense, since the computer replaces paper navigation charts printed in notebook form and attached to a pilot’s knee.

Position Integrity used Java applets to develop software buttons that make it easy for pilots to screen through various applications and then pages within each applications, eliminating one screen. Target imagery, which is obtained from satellites or photo reconnaissance aircraft, is a key PACMAN application, Severino said, since older aircraft, including the F-15, don’t have built-in digital target imagery systems. Precision bombing, based on smart weapons using high-resolution target imagery and Global Positioning System (GPS)-derived coordinates, has been a hallmark of the U.S. air campaign in Afghanistan.

PACMAN ties into a commercial GPS receiver — the kind a hiker or a private pilot could buy for several hundred dollars –and that provides the aircrew with precise position information fed into a moving map display stored on the PACMAN. Digital maps are provided by the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, Severino said. The pilot uses Velcro to stick the GPS receiver next to a cockpit window and plugs a cable into the tablet PC.

Pilots can also use PACMAN to access weather information, preloaded before each flight for their operational area. If they encounter mechanical or system problems, they can quickly jump to a digital tech manual for troubleshooting advice.

Position Logistics is also developing a version of PACMAN to be used by Tactical Aircraft Control Party controllers, who operate on the ground with infantry or Special Forces units to help them coordinate airstrikes.

Severino said the Air Force intends to use a secure data link over a satellite system operated by Iridium Satellite LLC to exchange precise, GPS-derived digital map-based targeting information. Severino said this would help reduce casualties caused by misdirected ordnance. Severino said 24% of the 35 U.S. casualties in Operation Desert Storm during the Persian Gulf War in Kuwait and Iraq were caused by badly aimed friendly fire from U.S. aircraft. Early in the Afghanistan air campaign, ordnance misdirected by ground controllers exploded near a Special Forces team, resulting in the death of three U.S. Green Berets and 25 Afghan allies and wounding Afghan Prime Minister Harmid Karzai.