Designing for high stakes

4 mins read

What do designers need to take into account when design displays for the military space? Tyler Jackson considers the factors.

When designing a military device, technology manufacturers must consider a range of different factors. Is the device durable? Is it lightweight? Is it safe for use in extreme conditions? Can soldiers easily use it in extreme conditions?

These aren’t just questions that determine the device’s effectiveness. They’re also questions that can ultimately determine the success of a mission.

So, what are the five key considerations for military devices and why are they critical for protecting soldiers’ lives and keeping their gear fully operational.

Form Factor and Weight

It seems like most commercial devices, from phones to TVs to laptops, are getting slimmer and slimmer. While this makes it easier for civilians to store devices in bags and pockets, form factor takes on even greater importance for military members.

Remember, service members often carry their gear with them. So, on top of their body armour that weighs around 35 pounds, military personnel must also carry packs that can weigh anywhere from 50 to 80 pounds.

Conservatively, that’s 85 pounds of equipment soldiers carry into the field. Which is why military markets are continuing to embrace low-SWaP (Size, Weight, and Power) devices as they help military members maintain mobility without compromising performance.

This balance between performance and weight leads me to the next consideration – battery life.

Battery Life

As military personnel increasingly use technology to fulfil missions, their reliance on battery power also increases. Service members aren’t alone in this, either.

As we (consumers) use mobile devices more frequently, we also want them to hold more power. Nobody likes feeling tethered to a wall outlet or relying on portable battery packs. But once again, the stakes here are much higher for military members.

Soldiers must prepare to be cut off from secure power sources at any point while they’re in the field. It’s an expectation. But if their devices die, that can – at worst – leave them stranded and – at best – require fumbling with heavy external battery packs.

This is why designing devices that consume less – and hold more – energy is crucial. The longer the battery life, the more flexibility soldiers have to continue their mission.

Ruggedness and Durability

It goes without saying that military members often work in extreme conditions, from deserts to wetlands to tundra. It’s not just soldiers who need to survive in these climates, though. The devices they carry must survive, too.

Typical consumers might solely determine a device’s ruggedness by looking at its drop test scores and – after seeing how easy it is to crack a smartphone screen – ultimately protect it with a case or screen protector. But in the field, ruggedness extends to more than drop tests.

Because they’re in the elements, soldiers need devices that keep out dust, mud, sand, snow, and water, whether it be through the screen, charging ports, or other openings.

These devices must also survive in extremely hot and cold environments. Ever leave your iPhone in the sun too long and come back to a heat warning message? Or deal with screen freezes and longer load times in the cold? Until the iPhone cools down (or warms up), it’s useless.

That’s a risk military members can’t run when they’re on a mission. So military devices must also be designed to withstand more extreme temperatures than commercial devices.

IoMT and IoBT Connectivity

Most consumers today are familiar with, or use devices that connect to, an Internet of Things (IoT) network. But what consumers likely aren’t familiar with is the Internet of Military Things (IoMT), also referred to as the Internet of Battlefield Things (IoBT).

Commercially, IoT lets consumers share data between devices to gain personalised insights, whether it’s the amount of steps they should take every day or how long they should microwave a certain brand of popcorn.

Though in its early stages, IoMT operates similarly. It collects data from IoMT-compatible devices and uses it to fuel insights. The difference here lies in which insights it gathers. With IoMT, soldiers at a home base can, for instance, track the health and location of platoon members with the help of biometric and geographic scanning.

There’s an additional obstacle too in that IoMT devices need to operate in GPS-denied environments (in which navigated infrastructures simply don’t exist).

Scaling this technology effectively will likely require the use of reconfigurable and adaptable systems, though. For instance, devices with segment displays – that only show digits or alphanumeric characters – will likely need to be replaced with devices (and displays) that support remote firmware updates.

Screen Readability

Lastly, for military devices with displays, screen readability should be examined in two contexts: readability in all lighting conditions and compatibility with Night Vision Imaging Systems (NVIS).

Let’s dig into these aspects of screen readability and why they’re so important for service members.

Readability in all lighting conditions. Unlike standardised tests, ambient light in the real world is uncontrollable. And in the field, service members aren’t able to be selective about their lighting conditions. They could spend entire days in direct sunlight or extended periods in low light.

LCD displays are notoriously difficult to read in bright light conditions and are very power hungry to achieve acceptable readability in all lighting conditions. So, LCD displays can present challenges for integration into military devices without the right lighting technology.

Screen readability is certainly important for commercial devices as well, but the stakes are notably lower. Soldiers must be able to easily view mission-critical data; so the display should not act as an impediment to this.

In terms of Night Vision Imaging Systems, because these systems allow soldiers to see in low-light areas, bright displays can actually hurt NVIS’ effectiveness. Think of this like being in the dark and suddenly having a camera flash near your face. It’s disorienting. And for soldiers, disorientation is potentially life-threatening.

This is why it’s often a requirement with military devices that the display does not interfere with night vision and, at the same time, is easy to read with the naked eye. Military members rely on their ability to scope out surroundings.

Mission Critical

If there’s one key difference between commercial devices and military devices, it’s this: the repercussions of a military device failing are often much greater – a matter of life and death – than a commercial device failing.

That’s why the military applies rigorous standards to the technology it eventually gives its personnel.

These higher stakes are also why it’s necessary to consider the differences between commercial and military devices during the design phase.

Doing so helps get military devices into the hands of service members more quickly.

Author details: Tyler Jackson is a field application engineer at Azumotech