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Saturday, October 1, 2005

BRAWNY COMPUTERS Built for the Hangar

Dale Smith, Senior Contributing Editor

Like them or not, computers are becoming as much of a part of toolboxes as wrenches and sockets. And like most tools, there are many kinds of computers, namely those that have failed and those that will fail. “Statistics show that there’s a 35 percent annual failure rate for regular commercial grade portable laptops and handhelds today,” explained Bill Presler, business development manager for Panasonic Computer Solutions. “The goal is to create a portable unit that meets the usual needs and speeds that is really reliable.”

Presler said that one problem that users face is that some companies have tried to use cosmetics to “ruggedize” their consumer computers. “You see companies who have a plastic device and put a metal case on it and call it ruggedized,” he continued. “That’s sort of like putting an egg in a metal lunch box. If you drop it, the lunch box will be brilliant, but you’re going to get scrambled eggs.” Real ruggedization means the computer can stand the stresses and strains of the maintenance world and keep coming back for more.

“It’s not so much that being rugged is important as it is being reliable that end-users care about,” Presler commented. “It’s not about the cool factor of surviving a three-foot drop or working out in the rain, it’s the fact that you can do these things and the unit will still work. Reliability is the key.”

So what should you look for in a ruggedized laptop or handheld? Presler suggested you begin by looking for units that are MIL-SPEC (MIL-STD) 810F approved. “This says basically that the unit is reliable and durable enough to use in military mission-critical operations,” he explained. “If you meet 810F you are doing something. You are good for vibration, moisture resistance, temperature extremes, shock and drop, dust—basically the gamut in terms of physical problems you will find in the hangar.”

Presler also said you should be wary of units that meet only “IP54” standards. That stands for Ingress Protection Five and Four (dust and water). “It’s a component of 810F, but it’s one of the litany of things you have to meet,” he said. “It’s good. But not as good.”

Now, let’s see what’s new in the world of ruggedized, portable computing units.

AMREL

AMREL’s ROCKY Patriot RT7-M rugged notebook operates in the harshest environments faced by military maintenance personnel. “The ROCKY is certified to MIL-STD 810F for ruggedness and MIL-STD 461E for electromagnetic emissions shielding,” explained Javier Camarillo, AMREL’S director of sales. “That means our unit is shielded against interference during wireless data transmission from the field.” Camarillo said that the ROCKY Patriot is utilized in the COLT (Common Organizational Level Testing) flight line test station for testing electronic systems on the B-2 bomber and the F-22 fighter. “This type of portable test station can be used for any type of electronic testing on both military and commercial aircraft,” he added. “AMREL also modified our ROCKY to meet special mounting requirements, designed to reduce vibration during helicopter flight. The ROCKY is capable of withstanding higher levels of vibration than the standard field computer, an important requirement with in-flight applications.”

The ROCKY Patriot RT7-M also features a magnesium casing with sealed ports and connector covers, wireless capability, and is available with up to 1 gigabyte DDR RAM, backlit keyboard, 80 gigabyte harddrive, 13.3-inch touchscreen display, swappable components for field servicing, and more.

DRS Tactical Systems

The newest member of the DRS WalkAbout computers, the XRTe, is “an extremely rugged Tablet PC,” according to the company. And its ruggedness goes beyond the aluminum housing to the introduction of some unique new capabilities, including ShutOut sealing technology, QuickBack data recovery, and ProtectIT automatic data protection. QuickBack permits the operator to set the computer to automatically back-up the current operating system and information, something that most users routinely forget to do. ProtectIT is a problem-preventing feature: the unit can actually sense acceleration during a drop and automatically protects itself. “ProtectIT safeguards data by preventing the heads from crashing into the disc drive,” explained Sheila Honan, WalkAbout’s director of marketing. “While other rugged tablet manufacturers focus on engineering from the outside in, we view design and development as protecting data from the outside in and the inside out. As a result, our innovative designs and patented systems encapsulate and protect your most critical data.”

The XRTe also features 802.11 b/g wireless standards, integrated Bluetooth, touch-screen or active pen, OutLook sunlight-readable display, dual hot-swappable lithium-ion smart batteries, 40 gigabyte harddrive, FlexSpace radio options, and a one-year warranty. The unit will also be MIL-STD 810F certified.

Itronix

With more than 10,000 of its popular GoBook rugged notebook computers in use by the U.S. Air Force alone, the designers at Itronix had a lot of input when designing the latest GoBook III. “The field maintainer was key in designing this product,” said Vince Menzione, Itronix’s vice president public sector markets. “A lot of those things have come in as we’ve gone from generation to generation.” Among the field-friendly features found in the GoBook III is a built-in cooling fan that keeps the 1.8-gigahertz Intel Centrino processor cool for maximum performance. Menzione stressed that the cooling “tunnel” is externalized so no water or dust can enter the computer itself. Sealing against contaminant ingression is part of the unit’s MIL-STD 810F certification. “These computers are made to be used outdoors in very hostile environments,” he added. “With our cooling fan and heated hard drive, they perform well in both temperature extremes.”

The GoBook III also includes a network driver interface to maximize the use of mobile networking operations via LAN, PAN, WLAN, and WWAN. Other features include a two-level network security system, ATI Mobility Radon graphics engine, Smart 6600 mAH lithium-ion main battery pack, fully waterproof NiteVue backlit keyboard, and outdoor readable ColorVue display with touch screen. To enhance security, the GoBook III is available with an optional fingerprint biometric reader and a new SmartCard reader. “That’s getting very popular with the Air Force,” he added. Manufacturer’s suggested retail price is $4,330.

Kontron (formally Dolch Computer Systems)

Kontron/Dolch has one of the largest selections of ruggedized computers of all the major suppliers. The company’s marketing manager, Fausto Castillo, said that the Transportation Portable Add-in Computer (TransPAC) has proven itself to be a standout performer in the aviation maintenance arena. According to the company, the TransPAC has been fully qualified to MIL-STD 810F, which are military standards for heart-stopping shock loads and random vibration that would destroy an ordinary computer. In addition, the TransPAC has been thoroughly tested for operation to minus 40 degrees Centigrade and certified to meet the EMI/RFI emission requirements of MIL-STD-461. Just what you need for those cold winter nights out on the ramp.

While the TransPAC is a commercial off-the-shelf computer, it can be easily custom configured with a variety of optional processor speeds, removable hard drives, CD-ROM drive, floppy drive, a resistive touch-screen, and more. Users can also add an environmental controller for low-temperature operations, an advanced GPS receiver (in case you’re working in a really big hangar), and interface modules for RS-232, RS-422, RS-485, or SCSI II.

Panasonic

According to Panasonic’s Bill Presler, the company’s Toughbook 18 is gaining industry-wide acceptance among the major air carriers. “Along with being very light [4.5 pounds], it’s extremely capable and versatile,” he said. “You can use it both as a laptop with a full keyboard or you can rotate the screen to convert it into a tablet PC.” Presler added that technicians in the field like the fact that you don’t need a special stylus: the Toughbook 18 is “fat-finger friendly.” The unit is also fully MIL-STD 810F compliant. Other features include a magnesium-alloy case, moisture- and dust-resistant keyboard, daylight-readable display, shock-mounted harddrive in a stainless steel case, rugged hinge—Presler said that Panasonic tests the hinges to 50,000 cycles—password security with cable lock slot, and a three-year warranty.

“To meet the varying needs of our airline customers, the Toughbook 18 also comes with wide-area-wireless capability,” he added. “Some customers have trouble installing a private wireless system on their ramp so they can use next-generation high-speed wide-area wireless service through a regular cellular provider.” That’s great because 75 percent of Toughbook deployments are in wireless situations. And the “18” has no external antenna to break off. Manufacturer’s suggested retail price is about $4,000.

Resources

AMREL
Phone: 800-654-9838
Web: www.amrel.com

DRS Tactical Systems
Phone: 888-925-5226 or
561-712-1200
Web: www.walkabout-comp.com

 

Itronix
Phone: 800-441-1309 or
509-624-6600
Web: www.itronix.com

Kontron/Dolch
Phone: 800-995-7560 or
510-661-2220
Web: www.dolch.com

Panasonic
Phone: 800-662-3537
Web: www.panasonic.com/toughbook

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