Army's New Secret Weapon: the iPad

Military tries out civilian handhelds for the battlefield.

ByABC News
September 27, 2011, 10:16 AM

Sept. 27, 2011 — -- Picture yourself as a young Marine who's just been sent to Haiti after an earthquake. There is horror everywhere. Fifty survivors crowd around you, asking for food and water, and you'd love to help them. But in the chaos you don't know where caches of supplies have been delivered.

So you do exactly what you've been trained to to: you whip out your smartphone.

Right there on the screen is an app that tells you exactly where you are, where your fellow troops are, and where relief supplies have now been delivered.

"He can tell the refugees, 'head that way,' and send a text ahead to be ready for 50 refugees," said Greg d'Arbonne of Overwatch Systems, a Textron subsidiary developing apps for the Department of Defense.

The U.S. military, used to spending big bucks on specialized hardware for its troops, has found that it can sometimes get the same results from the smartphones many teenagers have in their pockets before they enlist.

Private companies have jumped on board, creating software that does what the military needs, and for a lot less money than battle-hardened equipment would cost.

"What we need is a compass, an accelerometer, and GPS," said d'Arbonne. "Most smartphones have that."

"There was concern that a soldier might drop his phone. In that case, you can deactivate it remotely and get him a new one," he said. "And you know what? You're out $400, a lot less than you would have paid for hardware a few years ago."

The story is told of a chopper pilot in Afghanistan who got frustrated fumbling with maps over unfamiliar terrain. He loaded them all onto an iPad instead. His commanders liked his initiative. Thirty other pilots are now flying with everything they need on a tablet instead of paper.

There are issues to be dealt with, of course. Security is a major one. The hackers who crashed Sony's PlayStation network may find the U.S. Air Force too tempting to resist. So encryption specialists are already hard at work, which inevitably means a money-saving effort will get more expensive and cumbersome.

But momentum is growing. The Army ran a major exercise over the summer at Fort Bliss on the Texas-New Mexico border, with troops using Androids and BlackBerrys instead of specialized equipment. And d'Arbonne says that while the software his firm is developing is intended primarily for the military, some of the greatest interest comes from homeland security managers and relief agencies.

His firm has called its smartphone app Insite for civilian uses, and SoldierEyes for the military, but d'Arbonne said they're trying to come up with something better.

"We got some pushback from the Navy -- 'You want us to use something called SoldierEyes?'" he said.