Tech Success: Telos makes wireless networks tough

Rugged laptops <@SM>help Air Force put key data on the tarmac

IT solutions in action

Project: Point of Maintenance Initiative

Agency: Air Force

Partners: Itronix Corp., Spokane, Wash., and Telos Corp., Ashburn, Mass.

Goal: With its Point of Maintenance initiative, the Air Force wanted to accelerate the time it took to repair and maintain aircraft so they were ready to fly sooner. A key part of that initiative was putting information in the hands of technicians as they worked on aircraft.

Obstacle: Any mobile computing device used by Air Force maintenance crews stands a good chance of dropping off the wing of an aircraft, soaking in the rain, baking in desert sun or freezing in sub-zero temperatures. What's more, the wireless technology necessary to transmit information to crews is always changing, so the Air Force must be able to adapt to new standards without ditching existing mobile devices.

Solution: The Air Force turned to Telos Corp. to build 802.11b-based wireless networks at bases around the country. Telos tapped Itronix Corp. for rugged computing devices that could withstand punishment and make the best use of the latest wireless technology.

Payoff: Telos networks and Itronix mobile computers have been deployed at more than 50 Air Force bases, putting schematic drawings and other information in the hands of aircraft technicians. The system saves the Air Force time and money by making crews more productive. And now that the wireless networks are in place, Air Force bases are using them for other applications, such as supply chain management and cargo tracking.

Itronix Corp.'s mobile computing equipment survived numerous tests at the Nellis Air Force Base "Laptop Rodeo," said Vince Menzione, the company's vice president of public sector sales.

Henrik G, de Gyor

Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas sizzles in the desert sun. Temperatures at this Air Combat Command base consistently rocket to over 100 degrees in the summer months, conditions that lend new meaning to the term "bake-off."

But in July 2000, that's what Nellis conducted--a multi-vendor bake-off to determine which mobile computing devices could withstand rigorous use on the base's flight line, where planes are parked and serviced.

"They called it 'The Laptop Rodeo,'" said Vince Menzione, vice president of public sector sales for Itronix Corp., which makes rugged mobile computers and participated in the Nellis competition. "The surface temperature was about 140 degrees on the tarmac."

According to Menzione, Nellis had deployed a wireless network to help base personnel communicate and access information. But the mobile devices it was using couldn't withstand the heat and sand.

During the bake-off, Itronix systems handled the conditions and ran for eight hours before succumbing to the heat, Menzione said. Other systems broke down after less than two hours. A master sergeant at the base dropped an Intronix system off the tail of an F-16 fighter plane and the device survived. Then came the final test.

"He took the unit home and, unbeknown to us, he loaded a Barney movie on the computer and gave it to his five-year-old twin boys to play in the pool. They watched the movie under water," Menzione said.

Fast forward to the summer of 2003. The Air Force launched a Point of Maintenance initiative that employs wireless networks and rugged laptops to improve technicians' ability to maintain and repair aircraft. Telos Corp. of Ashburn, Mass., provided the wireless network integration, and the company turned to Itronix for rugged computing devices.

"We were putting wireless into areas where wireless had never been before," said Tom Badders, director of wireless networking for Telos. "Itronix was a good fit."

Nellis Air Force Base was one of the first to go wireless with the Point of Maintenance system. So far Telos and Itronix have outfitted more than 50 Air Force bases, across various commands, at a cost of up to $1 million per base, Badders said.

The Air Force Air Education and Training Command, with 13 bases in the U.S., plans to spend $66 million over the next several years to implement the Point of Maintenance system at all its bases. Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, was the first to go live with the system last August.

The training command's public affairs office reported that the wireless network and rugged computers helped the command reduce the time it takes to repair planes and return them to service. With 139 maintenance technicians at Randolph Air Force Base, productivity gains add up fast.

In addition to accessing aircraft schematics and maintenance manuals, technicians can enter data about the aircraft they're working on and check on the status of parts and inventory.

The networks themselves are based on standard 802.11b wireless communications, with virtual private network tunneling to ensure security. "NSA came out and tried to break into the Nellis system and couldn't," Menzione said.

Telos installs off-the-shelf Cisco access points, but modifies them to handle harsh conditions at the various Air Force bases.

"We put industrial packaging around the access points and integrated air conditioning systems into the enclosures," Badders said. Each base has between 35 and 150 access points.

Menzione said bases start out with roughly 50 rugged devices, including the company's GoBook II and GoBook Max laptops. All the structural components are made of die-cast magnesium. They are rated to operate between -10 and 140 degrees and exceed MIL-SPEC drop standards.

The GoBooks also include Itronix's Common Radio Module Architecture, which makes it easy for the Air Force to upgrade wireless radios in the event standards change.

"It has all the benefits of having the radio right on the motherboard, but it's a PCMCIA interface. We can plug in a standard PCMCIA card that's secure and embedded in a cage, and the antenna infrastructure runs up through the casing to the top of the system," Menzione said. "We get a better signal than if we just stuck in a radio card."

Going forward, Menzione said the Air Force will begin implementing Itronix's iCare Mobility system, which allows mobile technicians to roam more freely on the flight line. Without seamless roaming, when a technician moves out of range of one access point and into range of another, his network session must be restarted. With iCare Mobility, the session is held in its current state and automatically resumed.

Badders said now that Air Forces bases have deployed Telos wireless networks for the Point of Maintenance program, they're beginning to run other applications across the networks to track cargo, munitions and other supplies.

"Once the infrastructure is in place, other programs just use it," Badders said.

If you have an innovative solution that you recently installed in a government agency, contact Staff Writer Brad Grimes at

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