Soldier's PC takes to the field without B2C2

The Grunt II has everything going for it as a soldier's
computer, except for B2C2 software.


To be indispensable on the battlefield, a mobile PC should run the Army's Brigade and
Below Command and Control software, written for Santa Cruz Operation Unix. But Unix (at
least off-the-shelf Unix) lacks support for touchscreens, pens or PC Cards.


So Texas Micro's rugged little 3-pound Grunt II sticks with standard PC components:


Now in beta testing, the 9- by 6- by 2-inch case is made of the plastic used in
automobile bumpers. It hangs from a hand strap and works on the move: You hold it in one
hand and tap or drag the stylus with the other hand to operate Windows applications.


The only controls are an on-off button on the top and up-down arrows under the display
for contrast and brightness. LED indicators show disk and power status.


If you're stationary, you can prop up the unit by screwing a tripod socket or a
quarter-inch screw into the back. Removing three recessed screws opens the case for repair
or upgrade with a Pentium motherboard or more memory chips.


The Grunt II is built to Mil-Std 810E for shock and vibration. It will work from -10
degrees to 55 degrees Celsius, and you can "hose it down" but not immerse it,
according to Texas Micro's federal sales manager, Bill Taylor.


Notably missing from this unit is a head-mounted display the military had envisioned
for feeding intelligence to soldiers on the move. "The technology's not ready,"
Taylor said.


Will the lack of B2C2 software doom the Grunt II for military use? Perhaps not.


Taylor said the company has "hard orders" from three military units for Grunt
IIs for helicopter and landing craft navigation, video reconnaissance and aircraft
maintenance.


Bill Yost of the Soldier Office at the Army's Communications Electronics Command, Fort
Monmouth, N.J., said CECOM acquired three 25-MHz 486SX Grunt prototypes last year through
Small Business Innovation Research funding. "We've been evaluating them," he
said. "We've had a number of problems with batteries."


Yost said the Soldier Office looks at "small computers an individual soldier might
wear on the battlefield or anywhere that a soldier might need a computer." Fort
Monmouth also hosts the Force XXI program for equipping brigades with mobile computer
equipment.


Non-battlefield military applications for units like the Grunt II might include
decision support, logistics, navigation and mapping, but such programs are unlikely to be
heavy on text.


The $3,975 basic Grunt II has only the tethered stylus for text entry--you must print
block-style as on the federal tax Form 1040EZ. $5,000 buys a unit with an external
keyboard, floppy drive and 8M more memory--enough to run Windows 95.


Battery life, one of Yost's big concerns with the prototypes, is about 2 hours without
any power management, Taylor said. He said he expects batteries could last as long as 8
hours with power management software.


The Duracell batteries are hot-swappable, restoring the unit's status in about 40
seconds. The Grunt II also can operate from a 12-volt cigarette lighter socket. Standard
serial, parallel, PC Card, floppy and pen ports are protected by rubbery covers. The
expected release date for the Grunt II is year's end.


Texas Microsystems Inc., Houston; tel. 410-923-3450.


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