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An app for snipers? Why the military is developing its own smartphones

Courtesy of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency

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If you parachuted onto a military base and you took a look at the equipment service members use, you might think you'd dropped into 1985, seeing all of the paper maps and phones the size of bricks. 

That might be changing. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been designing its own smartphone for military use. It has apps for snipers, weapons guides, radiation detection and a pseudo-Facebook for soldiers to keep track of friends and enemies called WhoDat.

Adam Clark Estes wrote about the phone for Gizmodo

"Doran [Michels], [DARPA Program Manager] went on to explain why the awesome technology that Silicon Valley sells to us normals simply won't work for the tactical community, especially soldiers fighting in Afghanistan. These devices work mostly because the network they're connected to also works. Take away that network—which the vast majority of combat troops don't have access to—and you're left with a really expensive calculator. Just think of how useless your smartphone is when you can't get a signal. It's like that all of the time for soldiers.

"However, if you could build a secure network, one that troops could actually use in the most remote stretches of wilderness and the most war torn cities, even the simplest of smartphone functions would be tremendous tools not only for communicating but also for other simple tasks that are quickly complicated in battlefield scenarios. The ability to view and manipulate maps in real time, for instance, is clearly a step up from the existing paper-and-pencil approach on which many soldiers currently rely. And yes, of course, smartphones would also be great communication tools, especially compared to the old brick-sized radios soldiers now use.

"So the Pentagon launched the Transformative Apps program under the DARPA umbrella. The TransApp mission, as stated on DARPA's website, is to "develop a diverse array of militarily-relevant software applications using an innovative new development and acquisition process." The hardware itself is basically the same as what everyday Americans are walking around with every day. The big difference comes in how they're connected. Since civilian networks can't be trusted, soldiers must constantly set up secure networks on the fly using a suite of radios and networking equipment. Accordingly, TransApp developed a system that soldiers could plug smartphones into and gain basic connectivity. The corresponding apps are also designed to maintain functionality, even when they go offline."

Estes joins Tess Vigeland on the line from New York for a chat.