Mobile devices today are equipped not only with GPS, but also cameras and other sensors that collect data that can be geo-referenced by the device's on-board capabilities. These facts have not gone unnoticed in the military and intelligence communities, as they attempt to harness the power and ubiquity of these devices and apps to create a two-way highway of data, information and intelligence between headquarters and the field.
The increasing use of mobile devices means that more individuals are walking around with geospatially equipped sensors capable of geotagging data through connections with GPS satellites. Software developers have been developing commercial mobile geospatially enabled apps for several years, and some of these are now being adapted to the military and intelligence space. Developers are also producing apps specifically for government and military purposes.
"The consumer space seems to have driven the mobile apps market, and the enterprise space is playing catchup," said A.J. Clark, president of Thermopylae Sciences + Technology. "The military and intelligence side can take advantage of what is already out there and understand some of the lessons learned. On the other hand, the government space is moving at a much slower pace than the consumer space."
"There are many different uses for mobile apps in the defense and intelligence arenas," said Ben Conklin, lead for defense solutions at Esri. "Warfighters already carry mobile devices in the field, and many of the available apps are already taking off. Field data collection is one area where mobile apps are being used heavily, as are apps that provide simple interactive maps, crowdsource reporting and situational awareness and display."
There are two classes of applications that can be deployed on mobile devices, noted Rob Mott, vice president for geospatial solutions at Intergraph Government Solutions. Native apps are those that have been developed specifically for mobile platforms using the iOS (Apple) or Android operating systems. The second category contains mobile apps that were not built for a specific operating system, but are accessible by any devices capable of running a Web browser.
Native mobile apps are arguably better at exploiting the on-board resources of a given device, while browser accessible apps are compatible with a broader array of platforms. They are not limited to the two main mobile operating systems, and can be used on devices running other operating systems, such as Windows.
"From a user perspective, the difference in some cases is negligible or even unrecognizable," said Mott. "Both user interfaces have data input mechanisms with buttons, sliders and other widgets built into the app. The real difference comes more in the architecture that plays out behind the scenes. Native mobile apps can take better advantage of some the device's on-board resources, such as accelerometers, cameras, microphones and GPS."
Credit for the ease by which geospatial mobile apps can be developed and deployed on devices goes to development frameworks that companies have created to facilitate that process. In many cases, apps can be generated without programming or coding by end-users who themselves have little or no background in writing software. The apps can be composed for specific tasks and missions and later discarded.
TerraGo's contribution to the mobile geospatial apps space has been to create a framework called Edge, which can be used to create apps and workflows that collect and disseminate geospatial and other intelligence regardless of the specific handheld devices in the procession of end-users.
"This is all done through a Web platform, server and database," said David Basil, head of product development at TerraGo. "Once information gets deployed to folks in the field, they can use various platforms and mobile devices, including iOS and Android devices, or any other kind of device with a Web browser. Edge is device-independent, so that users in the field can receive information from folks at the operations center while in the field collecting or updating information provided to them."
One challenge in developing Edge was to make sure it was flexible enough to be applied to different scenarios without customization or coding. "The second challenge was making sure that it was device-independent," said Basil. "It can be used with any device in the field that has a browser. There is no need to buy a specific proprietary device."
The apps developed with TerraGo's Edge framework collect data in the form of photos, videos, audio files and text notes. The devices' GPS capabilities accurately tag locations associated with the data, all of which are sent back to operations centers for immediate action.
"The data can be ad-hoc data or structured, form-based data," said Basil. "The information collected is immediately synched to headquarters or operations centers in real time. The data is geotagged, so the result is the capability to create real-time actionable intelligence that is geospatially aware."
Personnel assigned to ops centers can collaborate with those in the field by creating and assigning tasks and missions based on the information received from the field. "Folks in the field can also collaborate with each other without going through headquarters," said Basil. "Edge can also operate offline in situations of poor or nonexistent communications connections. The data collected is synched up later when communications are reestablished."
The Edge framework is itself natively geospatial. "It ties directly into the enterprise's geospatial information system of record," said Basil, "and can access all exiting geographical information, applications, features, and attributes. Edge uses all that as the basis to perform field data collection. All that information is provided to Edge and Edge uses geospatial information to update existing geographical information."
TerraGo developed Edge in response to customers who worked with GeoPDF, which was originally developed by TerraGo. "GeoPDFs are geospatial information packages that are easily deployed to users working in the field," said Basil. "Our customers were asking two main things of us. They needed to have an enterprise database server so that information could be stored in a server instead of on a document that was floating around. And they needed to support any device in the field, anything with a browser."
Edge is capable of being adapted to wide variety of missions and scenarios. "It allows users to build their own apps and workflows without coding," said Basil. "Users can build their own forms, tasks and projects and because the framework is so flexible."
"For the military and intelligence communities, Esri has a lot of out-of-the-box apps," said Conklin. "But the community also needs custom and focused apps and specific workflows that need to be accommodated."
Esri supports the military and intelligence community with a product called AppStudio, which provides a framework for building native mobile apps. "We already have a Web app builder if users want to deploy them in browsers," said Conklin. "AppStudio takes this to the next level by building native apps that run on devices that can also work offline, which is also a big community requirement."
AppStudio allows developers and users to build mobile apps that extend the webGIS platform, which is Esri's cloud-based version of its popular GIS software. "AppStudio leverages the tools of webGIS such as content management, data management, and user identity," said Conklin. "AppStudio consumes content from the platform. It's all about how far you can take webGIS."
Since AppStudio is new, not many new apps have been posted that utilize that platform. One Esri app that has been developed with App Studio is called Field Notes-Earth.
"Field Notes-Earth was built in conjunction with an Esri project called Living Atlas, which gives users information about natural and social environments. Data inform users about their physical and demographic surroundings and things like how global warming and climate change are effecting where they are. This is a good example of a focused app that was built to interact on a mobile device," Conklin noted.
Thermopylae has also taken a framework approach to the mobile apps challenge, with a platform called Ubiquity. The idea behind Ubiquity was to identify the commonalities that comprise 95 percent of all apps so that developers don't have to go back to the drawing board to design each element for each new app. Mobile apps can also make use of Thermopylae's iSpatial, a Web-based collaborative framework that leverages Google Earth and Maps.
"The primary goal for Ubiquity is to provide features and functions that app developers want," said Clark. "It is almost like an extension of the Android or Apple app development environments."
Like some platforms available for the commercial marketplace, Ubiquity allows users to drag and drop the functions they want for a specific need into an app. "The environment provides functionality in connected or disconnected modes," said Clark. "The data moves back and forth once communications are re-established."
Ubiquity was used to create a utility that allows security personnel to keep track of multiple video feeds on mobile devices. Instead of launching an app to view the feed, the user first chooses the video feed of interest, and then chooses among apps associated with that feed that best meet the needs of the moment.
Thermopylae was instrumental in the development of the Army's Windshear software, which aimed to extend access to cloud-based data and analytics to warfighters at the tactical edge. Phase II of the program included a requirement to develop a mobile-based framework that would serve as the link between the warfighter and the tactical cloud, and serve up the capabilities required by the program.
"Thermopylae led the efforts to develop both the mobile and geospatial components of Windshear, Phase II," said Clark. "By utilizing a unique combination of iSpatial and Ubiquity, we created a powerful platform that leveraged geo-fencing to define zones for mobile capability provisioning on the warfighter's devices."
The capabilities of iSpatial and Ubiquity resulted in a software product that exceeded the Army's expectations, according to Clark. Fielded during Empire Challenge 2011, the Windshear software delivered rapid provisioning of the tools warfighters need through a smartphone.
"With analytics conducted securely through the cloud," said Clark, "the warfighter now has unique capabilities, including biometrics, facial recognition, reporting, ID scanning and more, via a mobile device."
Intergraph Government Solutions has developed geospatial mobile apps for the commercial market that can be adapted to defense and intelligence, as well as one that was developed specifically for national and military mapping agencies.
One of the commercial apps, developed for Android and iOS devices and called Mobile Alert, is a cloud-based citizen crowdsourcing application. "It can be used by citizens to get information to governments about what is going on," said Mott. "It can also be used in the management of military installations which are themselves often like cities."
Mobile Alert lets users take a picture of an object in the environment, which could relate, for example, to damage to utilities infrastructure or some sort of public hazard. The user then has the option of adding a few explanatory key words. All this is geotagged and sent to a cloud service. "That way government agencies have access to this information in real time," said Mott.
Mobile Alert has been deployed globally across 75 local governments. "This app makes them more aware of what is going on in the environment and they can do this without deploying additional resources," said Mott. "Users can categorize the information they send to provide context. The same app can just as well be used for managing infrastructure on a military installation. It makes authorities more aware of something that may be going in that environment."
Intergraph has also introduced a java-based browser app for field-based data collection called GeoMedia Smart Client. "The app supports custom workflows for personnel who have duties in the field and require up-to-date mapping information," said Mott. "Users are able to add details to the enterprise database from the web interface. It is meant to be a very lightweight low-impact app requiring minimal training built for workflows that require data entry from the field."
The app incorporates data entry forms and allows interactive maps to be used. The data, which can include imagery, detailed mapping information, and non-graphic metadata, is captured on the device and automatically synchronized on the database. GeoMedia Smart Client can also work in disconnected mode.
Intergraph Government Solutions' Cartographic Web Services, meanwhile, was built specifically for the government market. The app was developed for national and military mapping agencies based on requirements published by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.
"Cartographic Web Services allows field-based users, such as warfighters getting ready to enter an area of concern, to access up-to-date digital maps and other geospatial information to perform tasks like convoy routing," said Mott. "The app gives them linkage through a portal to Department of Defense intelligence sources to create and perform those kinds of tasks on the fly."
Geospatial data is constantly being updated, so that a map produced a few weeks or a few days before an operation may be out of date. "Cartographic Web Services allows the user, perhaps a captain in a tactical vehicle, to define his needs and generate the necessary map he needs to conduct his mission in minutes," said Mott. "Previously this type of product was possible only with desktop software. The end product is a Geospatial PDF, which is sent to the mobile device so that operations can also be conducted in disconnected mode."
Intergraph's parent company, Hexagon Geospatial, will soon be unveiling an environment that will allow the quick assembly and deployment of geospatial mobile apps from reusable components. The new cloud-based architecture called Smart M.App will support mobile workflows for users with little or no programing.
"Smart M.App will take advantage of many of the world-class geospatial processes available now so that they can be harvested and reassembled as needed by the user," said Mott. "Capabilities will include interactive maps and will afford users the flexibility to access information in a number of ways and to analyze and report on that information. It will allow smart maps to be developed and deployed very quickly with the capability of performing many complex geospatial processes like change detection and other analyses that only desktop applications could handle in the past."