As much as I'd like to say I bought an iPhone after weighing its performance against that of the competition, I admit it, I chose it because of the apps. I'm not talking about panorama shots, online banking, or even sound-mixing software. I mean truly excellent apps like those for circuit design or the one that lets you take 3D video using the phone's screen for illumination and camera to capture images. But hands down, the coolest app I've seen so far is the one Boeing and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT; Cambridge, MA) engineers have developed to a pilot an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).
The software operates over the network, connecting the pilot to a UAV on the other side of the country. Of course, that's not all that impressive in and of itself, considering that pilots running UAVs in Iraq might be operating from Colorado, but the military pilots are using serious hardware for the task, whereas the Boeing/MIT team uses an iPhone just like the one sitting on my desk. (Just like it except for the lack of UAV software, an omission I intend to correct as soon as the opportunity arises).
They hit an icon and a control wheel comes up on the touchscreen, allowing them to navigate the aircraft at will. They can also direct it by pointing to locations on the map. The application provides a simple, intuitive interface to the vehicle without the need for a bulky control console.
In a way, it represents the commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) concept taken to a whole new level. Imagine a soldier pulling an ultralight UAV out of his or her backpack, throwing it in the air to launch it, and controlling it with a commercially available communications device. That same phone could be loaded with a host of enabling apps such as GPS capabilities, image-processing tools, and other mission-specific routines, including those to ensure security.
Angry Birds, eat your heart out.
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Flying a UAV in airspace that may also be occupied by other aircraft using a connection where the call could be dropped could lead to loss of life. It's an interesting demo, but I think the FAA might have something to say about it.
This is very cool, but to answer your question about COTS platforms for military applications, I think it would need to be a modified COTS platform -- much like Obama's smartphone, which is off the shelf, but not a normal commerical product -- it was designed and manufactured by a defense contractor specifically for government customers requiring NSA-level encryption, secure OS, etc.
Do you think that using commercial communications platforms for military applications could ever take off, or are the security risks too great? And more important question, what is your favorite iPhone app?