Unleash the iPhones of war! The US Army has announced the winners of their first-ever mobile phone app development contest. And the general behind the program says some of the applications will be in the field “within a year”.
A total of 141 soldiers and army civilians participated in the contest, called Apps for the Army (A4A), which launched on March 1. Participants designed a total of 53 applications, mostly for Androids and iPhones, in five different categories. Twenty-five apps were short-listed and cleared for deployment, with first-prize winners in each category taking home $US3000.
“This portends a different way in which we hope to develop tools for the military in the future,” Army Chief Information Officer Lt Gen Jeffrey Sorenson tells reporters. “This eliminates requirement documentation, solicitations and the rest of the bureaucratic acquisition process that really slows us down.”
The overall winners ranged from a workout guide to an app for disaster relief efforts that allows the user to search, create and edit maps using Google Earth. But in terms of battlefield utility, the most important app may be “Sigacts” program for the iPhone. It lets a soldier tap into the Army’s futuristic command post software (called, I’m not kidding, “Command Post of the Future“) and learn about bombings and firefights in his area.
The app was developed by a team led by Major Greg Motes. They’re also the contest’s first-place winner, “Physical Readiness Trainer”. He says his goal was to break down “a wall of text” into something more accessible. “I heard a general comment on a new fitness manual being circulated, and it was 400 pages long,” he told reporters. “We didn’t want to drop a PDF into an app, so we sat down and broke the guide down, added multimedia.” The team incorporated exercise pictures, videos and a search function to make the fitness guide user-friendly.
Sorenson says the army plans to host more contests and that plans are also underway to collaborate with commercial developers. But while A4A marks an impressive openness to streamlined development and new computing platforms, Sorenson acknowledges the army’s still working out some kinks.
“We’ve yet to figure out adequate security encryption for iPhone and Androids,” he says. Which makes the gadgets off-limits for most soldiers on the battlefield. And while the apps are already available for download online (sorry, Department of Defence Common Access Card holders only), some had to be taken down after the Army realised developers had used Wikipedia content without acknowledging copyright.
Already, though, the Army’s got a leg up on Darpa, the Pentagon’s blue-sky research arm. The agency’s also working on battlefield applications, but their program, “Transformative Apps”, was shot down by the House Armed Services Committee in May. The committee noted that Sorenson’s leadership offered “a closer understanding of the warfighter’s needs and requirements”.
“What we wanted to do here was simple,” Sorenson says. “We wanted soldiers to create something that, from their perspective, could be useful for the army. Something they’d actually use.”
And even though the apps haven’t quite hit the war zone, Sorenson’s already anticipating improvement. All the apps will be open source, “so if someone else wanted to take a look, add changes and re-host it, we would certainly welcome that.”
Photo: US Air Force