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THERE'S AN APP FOR THAT: TURNING SMARTPHONES INTO TOOLS FOR TROOPS

An innovative ISIS project, the Android Mobile Military Middleware Objects (AMMO), is developing lightweight middleware software platforms that convert standard smartphones and mobile apps into secure military and disaster recovery communications devices. Presently deployed with more than 2,000 troops overseas, the DARPA-funded AMMO project is geared to help soldiers avoid firing on friendly troops, navigate back to base in unfamiliar territories, avoid potential ambush points, and protect civilians traveling with the troops.

turning smartphones

Middleware developed at ISIS provides the building blocks to allow smartphone apps to replace and expand the functions of the traditional tactical radios used by the military. Numerous military-relevant software apps developed by the DARPA program already are in the field, with more under development. "What's great about AMMO is that DARPA has deployed it to soldiers who are actually using it through the apps, giving it rave reviews, and ensuring its continued upgrades meet their needs," said Sandeep Neema, ISIS senior research scientist, research associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science, and principal investigator (PI) for AMMO.

"DARPA's goal with Transformative Apps (the DARPA program under which AMMO is being developed) is to achieve maximum impact quickly in the field," said co-PI Ted Bapty, ISIS senior research scientist and research associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science. "Soldiers in Afghanistan are using AMMO software. DARPA's agile research and development approach focuses on getting this software and hardware out there quickly to help them, see what they like, and then iterating. Some of the best ideas come from soldiers using the apps and providing rapid response feedback."

He continued, "When soldiers get out there, and they're looking in the sun with all this heavy equipment on and someone's shooting at them, that's a vastly different environment than we experience here in the lab at ISIS, so thorough user testing in the field is critical."

Converting commercially available smartphones for use in a constrained battlefield environment requires flexibility and serious problem-solving acumen. Often, the underlying infrastructure expected by a smartphone used in the USA on a 3G or WiFi network, for example is not readily accessible, nor is the requisite security available since conventional mobile phones are easily hacked or jammed in combat situations. The AMMO smartphones must therefore be made tamper-proof and function with existing tactical radios in Army units.

"Middleware provides the glue to make the smartphone work efficiently and securely within this environment," explained Bapty. Middleware delivers a software communication layer to enable the operating system and the apps to work together with tactical radios. "The tactical environment is where the AMMO middleware shines. This middleware makes modern smartphone apps accessible to war fighters."

While traditional tactical radios are used primarily for voice or data transmission, the smartphone apps hosted atop AMMO provide additional functions, such as mapping for dynamic positioning, sharing photos that might help identify enemy troops or transmitting information about an improvised explosive device (IED) explosion that requires medical assistance for troops. Translator apps allow more rapid communication with the local population. Twitter-like apps allow quick communication, with multimedia attachments. The SOLOMON shooter location technology developed by ISIS engineers (see page 12) is building on some of the Android-based middleware technology developed for the AVM project.

AMMO's data relay capability provides important functionality as well, according to Bapty. For example, it allows soldiers to relay information back to base from troops farther afield or from those blocked by dense vegetation.

Vanderbilt was the natural environment for AMMO, which emerged in part from the research tools and applied work of ISIS on a previous Army-sponsored project called Future Combat Systems (FCS). Among the tools ISIS created for FCS was a student-built robot controlled by a smartphone and equipped with a camera to identify certain objects. ISIS researchers realized some of those innovations could be applied to mobile phones, and DARPA fast-tracked the ideas for use in the battlefield.

turning smartphones

"Our work on AMMO spans from high-level, Java-based programming abstractions down to cable wire soldering. The cross-disciplinary nature of the team and the experience we've built across the board makes us the right team," Neema said. "We have both the people and the technology."

Among those people is co-PI Douglas C. Schmidt, professor of computer science and a senior research scientist at ISIS, who has worked extensively on middleware technologies for distributed real-time and embedded (DRE) systems (see page 30). "ISIS and Vanderbilt are world leaders in DRE system middleware and mobile software apps, so the AMMO project provides the ideal confluence of these two technologies," Schmidt explained.

The flexible middleware and agile development methods applied on AMMO have allowed for several hardware revisions already, Neema said. One problem that ISIS addressed was the need for lower level hardware to integrate with a radio, which required alterations to the cables so they did not interfere with radio frequencies. The latter modification was finessed by ISIS research scientist James "Bubba" Davis, which explains why the DARPA Transformative Apps hardware now includes "Bubba cables."

"Anything can go wrong at any layer of the entire hardware and software stack," Neema said, "and when things go wrong, you have to reason through many complex interactions. You need people who can go across multiple levels and are not afraid to challenge assumptions and debug problems, and that's what we have here at ISIS." R&D projects sometimes fail, he said, because of researchers' tendency to focus only on a small area of expertise rather than supporting the broader project objectives. "For the end users, the entire system smart-phone hardware, radios, cables, operating system, middle-ware, applications—has to work or nothing works. At ISIS, we've never shied away from dealing with the whole technology spectrum."

AMMO started in 2010 with $500,000 in seed money from DARPA and has scaled up considerably since then, with a recent $17 million dollar award to ISIS as the prime contractor. This increased funding has allowed ISIS to create undergraduate research opportunities with as many as five interns per academic year. Some graduates who interned at ISIS while undergraduates at Vanderbilt have taken their technology expertise to commercial jobs in Nashville, broadening the AMMO technology transition impact.

"Smartphone-based technologies especially open-source projects like Android and AMMO are a key driver of future innovation for research, education, and industry," said Schmidt, "so ISIS's success with the AMMO project is a microcosm of exciting things to come."