Android is still the smartphone platform of choice for the world’s consumers, and it may also be the ideal operating system for the world’s armies, navies, and security agencies. The versatile, open, and free operating system already has most of the necessary pieces in place to power the most sophisticated defense and government applications. The only thing Android is missing is a heavy layer of security and hardware rendered rugged to optimize it for military purposes, according to Elektrobit, a Finnish wireless-engineering company.
Last week, National Defense magazine broke a story about Boeing’s (BA) development of a highly secure Android smartphone for the aerospace and defense industries. This isn’t the first time the Google (GOOG) mobile OS has been tapped for military use. Elektrobit has customized Android for military and public safety purposes and is selling that reference design to help defense contractors build highly secure smartphones tailored for the military.
One such contractor is Raptor Identification Systems, which is tailoring smartphones and tablets with biometric identification capabilities for the U.S. Department of Defense and other agencies.
According to Jani Lyrintzis, vice president of special terminals at Elektrobit, 80 percent of the work necessary to build a military-grade smartphone is already available in the Android kernel. Elektrobit completed the necessary software upgrades by adding secure middleware between the applications layer and the operating system, thereby preventing apps and users from compromising strict governmental security policies, Lyrintzis says. The rest consists of industrial design: Phones in the field need to be rendered rugged to protect them from the elements, and extra hardware—such as Raptor ID’s biometric scanners—can be added, depending on a phone’s intended use.
“We’ve seen a big reversal in the direction technology innovations are flowing,” Lyrintzis says. “Previously, whatever technology was developed for the military eventually moved to the consumer market. About six years ago, the trend reversed.”
Building on the work done for Android has enormous advantages, Lyrintzis says. The biggest is the streamlining and simplification of the procurement process. Typically, a contractor develops a proprietary military application from scratch, building and testing new, specialized hardware and software. By utilizing existing smartphone technologies, contractors essentially become Android developers working on a multipurpose platform, Lyrintzis says. In the case of Raptor ID, the DOD no longer gets a single-purpose fingerprint analyzer, but a device that can be used to make phone calls, send text messages, surf the Internet, and access government servers—plus scan biometrics and host any number of military applications.
It may sound crazy, but Lyrintzis says it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that the most sophisticated military applications, such as controlling unmanned drones, could be done right from an optimized Android tablet. Today’s technology supports it, he says, adding that it’s merely a matter of ensuring that security is airtight.
In addition, military users would no longer have to reinvent the wheel every time they wish to take advantage of consumer or enterprise applications that are already on the market. Rather than enlist a developer to build a specialized expense-management app, commercial app developers could develop more secure versions of their existing apps for military smartphones. There’s probably not much software available in Google Play or other app stores that the DoD could use off the shelf; with security tweaks, a consumer app could be turned into a military-grade app, Lyrintzis says. It may not be long before we see military-app stores popping up beside their consumer counterparts.
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