Coast Guard searches for seaworthy notebooks

Coast Guard searches for seaworthy notebooks

By William Jackson

GCN Staff

The worse maritime conditions are, the more urgent the Coast Guard's services become.

'If marine navigation is going to be affected by an aid being out, somebody is going to have to fix it or replace it,' said Ensign Ken Langford of the guard's Short-range Aid to Navigation program. The program maintains directional buoys, fixed lights and other signals that guide vessels in U.S. coastal waters.

Langford is overseeing acquisition of rugged notebook computers for the small craft that tend the signals.

'We're not just worried about a computer being dropped on a deck or kicked around,' Langford said. 'Our main concern is the salt environment.'

The Short-range Aid to Navigation program uses Global Positioning System software on FieldWorks 5000 rugged notebook computers from FieldWorks Inc. of Eden Prairie, Minn. The Coast Guard has had the FieldWorks computers for about three years, and Langford is evaluating possible replacements.

The guard wants units that can provide real-time data communications for cutters that patrol coastal waters.

'When they go out they take a beating,' said Cmdr. Tom Pedagno, formerly of the Guard's R&D Center in Groton, Conn. 'We need something that can be exposed to the elements and to boatswain's mates and still function.'

Notebooks for such environments are a different breed from those used by road warriors. They are hardier and more job-specific, and they have fewer applications and features. They also must last far beyond the usual product cycle in the computer industry.

'Our computers average one multistory drop a day and one vehicle fire a week,' said Brian Yurkiw, director of industry marketing for Itronix Corp. of Spokane, Wash.

Pedagno, who now is in charge of electronic systems support for the Coast Guard in Alaska, evaluated the Itronix notebooks on 41-foot open cutters while at Groton.

Itronix ships most of its rugged computers with factory-loaded applications and no floppy or CD-ROM drives. Some units still go out with Microsoft Windows 3.11. Buyers pay a premium for the rugged construction and expect the notebooks to keep doing the same job with the same software for a minimum of five years.

'They are not as interested in keeping up with technology as they are in keeping the equipment running in the field,' said Sterling McKanna, vice president of sales and marketing for Arbor Systems Inc. of Dallas, a reseller of Itronix computers.

The Groton test aboard Guard cutters pitted the FieldWorks rugged notebook against the Itronix 6250 and the Toughbook CF-25 from Panasonic Personal Computer Co. of Secaucus, N.J. The notebooks operated on the open sea seven days a week for a year.

'I was looking to provide Internet or intranet access, either cellular or satellite, depending on what was available at the time,' Pedagno said.

Radio communication was available to the cutters, but it suffered from interference and the necessity of spelling out complicated ship and personal names. Larger ships had data links, but the Coast Guard wanted to have Web communications in open boats.

The Itronix, with a 133-MHz Pentium processor, 64M of RAM, a 1.6G hard drive and Windows 95, won out in the trials that ended in March last year. It had a tightly sealed keyboard and ports but no floppy or CD drives where water could leak.

'I didn't need a floppy drive on a cutter,' Pedagno said. 'It's definitely a niche computer. I wouldn't want to take it with me when I'm traveling.'

The 10 Itronix notebooks bought for the trial still are in use. 'Unfortunately, in the current budget environment, they were not implemented as standard,' Pedagno said.

The Coast Guard is trying to get the ruggedized notebooks included in a capital appropriation for large cutters and aircraft.

The FieldWorks 5000 units used by the Coast Guard each have a 166-MHz Pentium processor, 64M of RAM and a 2G hard drive.

'Rugged computers in general tend to be six months to a year behind the leading edge in chips,' said Lisa Baker, FieldWorks' government program manager. Mobile chips come out after their desktop PC counterparts, and manufacturers must do extra work to make the cases both tight and cool-running.

Despite being relatively low-tech, units that can be relied on in salt spray 365 days a year do not come cheap. The Itronix 6250 costs about $6,000, about $1,000 more than a Panasonic Toughbook or an entry-level FieldWorks 5000.

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