It’s difficult to believe that the idea of a hand-held mobile phone was an alien concept only a few short decades ago. From brick-sized analogue devices to wafer thin smartphones with processing capabilities comparable to those of laptops, new technology is constantly pushing the boundaries of what we can expect from our phones. And, in a reverse of the normal pattern of technology innovation, a development driven by consumers is set to have an important impact on aerospace and defence (A&D).

With the suggestion that we might soon be able to vote in national elections from our smartphones after Estonia became the first country to accept phone votes last year, the public sector is increasingly embracing the benefits of mobile apps. For example, David Cameron is currently trialing an app with real-time data on industry issues designed by the Government to assist him in the process of governing.

With mobile apps making such a splash in so many areas of public life, could they provide an edge in defence, that traditional “first responsibility” of governments worldwide? The Pentagon has already tested new mobile technology during its Network Integration Evaluation and is likely to use network-ready smartphones as part of the mission in Afghanistan next year.

A&D by definition is mobile

Aerospace & Defence are essentially mobile industries, with mobility playing a massive part in day-to-day operations – not only in the transportation of troops and supplies, but also the manoeuvre or relocation of forces, troops or entire bases. IT infrastructure is essential for the day to day running of all military operations but legacy systems have often required communications hubs with fixed locations to optimise the access of software applications and to manage associated data. This complexity requires large amounts of space and maintenance, which is costly and lacks agility.

Mobile apps can significantly improve this agility by placing applications, processes and information directly into the palm of the hand, optimised for that user’s role. This provides accurate critical information to ever more sophisticated specialised military enterprise management systems to the user, but with the minimum overhead placed on the warfighter.

Defence departments around the world are fast realising that mobile apps technology can be as helpful in A&D as it is in nearly every other industry. In May, the US Department of Defence released its Mobile Defence Strategy, with the objective of creating “a highly mobile workforce equipped with secure access to information and computing power anywhere at any time for greater mission effectiveness”.

No need to deploy your enterprise IT – there’s an app for that!

This US strategy pointed out that the advantages to using mobile app technology in the field were potentially huge: the ability for personnel to access mission-critical information in the field, a more agile response to a changing tactical situation. The Pentagon is already thinking about using network-ready smartphones as part of the mission in Afghanistan next year, while the Department of Defence (DOD), the General Services Administration and NASA are all building online app stores where users can find and download mobile tools to assist in their work.

Similarly, the UK’s Ministry of Defence has developed smartphone apps to provide an alternative to computer-based personnel training as well as developing its G-Cloud strategy for cloud computing technology. This summer, the Australian Government also put out a request to industry leaders for information on the viability of providing secure smartphones and tablet computers for military use.

Companies within the A&D industry have embraced the potential of mobile apps technology. One example is a Flight Log App, which tracks critical information on the user’s air and land assets. A synchronised and consolidated flight log, including flight details, disruptions, faults and crew associated with the flight, and pre- or post-flight inspections, can now be in the hands of those on the front lines.

Simply having that information in one place enables maintenance to be effectively planned for an entire fleet of aircraft, transports or armoured vehicles, cutting time spent on administration tasks drastically.

Security – doesn’t need to be an issue

Security is obviously of paramount importance in A&D. During the advent of smartphones a couple of years ago, defence departments were understandably wary of allowing their use in theatres of war.

The US Department of Defence – now one of the great supporters of smartphone defence technology – initially banned the use of social media on these devices over concerns that sensitive tactical information could be leaked. Since that time, improved training on the proper and safe use of smartphones – be it for personal or professional use – has created a breed of secure military mobile users, to the point where the DOD felt comfortable enough to drop the ban.

And, alongside increasingly sophisticated security and encryption techniques being developed by ministries and defence departments around the world, smartphones are increasingly appearing to be secure modern communication defence assets.

Recently, the Pentagon ended its long-standing exclusive contract to Research in Motion, the developers of the Blackberry, to allow the use of iOS, Windows and Android smartphones in defence operations. The new arrangement is being coupled with a plan to encrypt up to 8m devices, from Android phones to iPads, and prepare them for secure use by DOD personnel.

Just as the MoD and DOD and companies are designing smartphone apps for military use, defence communications have come a long way from the time of carrier pigeons; now, communication can be instantaneous, detailed and accurate – and readily optimised for the warfighter. By ensuring that critical information can be accessed by the troops on the ground – at any time and in any place – the A&D industry can provide a real and meaningful step towards a more agile military.