Smartphones Are Helping the U.S. Air Force Push Its Limits

Charlie Gao

Key point: And the service has a preference for Android phones.

Since the 2000s, militaries have experimented with wearable computers and displays in a variety of locations in “Future Soldier” programs. Generally, the purpose of these devices was to allow soldiers to easily locate friendly forces and mark the positions of suspected enemies, reducing friendly fire and allowing for easier tactical maneuver. However, most of these have been unsuccessful, being too bulky, power-hungry or incompatible with existing architecture to stick.

But in 2010, a U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory team decided to leverage the open-source, multi-device compatible nature of the Android operating system to create a geospatial app for the teams on the ground. Called the Android Tactical Assault Kit, or ATAK, this piece of software has gone on to become the preferred app of American tactical teams across most branches.

ATAK at its heart is a map application that shares data across a local network. Map and locational data, along with regular text, voice, video, video streaming and image data can be shared from user to user through the app. As most android devices are equipped with a GPS receiver, ATAK is also useful as a regular navigation and orienteering app.

In many ways, ATAK resembles the U.S. military’s FBCB2 system (which also shares ATAK/Android’s Linux roots) scaled down to the squad level, as it allows for the infantry soldier to keep track of the position of other friendly infantry—a capability FBCB2 gives mostly for vehicles.

ATAK also provides a fairly wide variety of map tools, driven by the feedback of its users. These include the ability to see elevation along a planned route, the ability to measure distances to locations on the map and the ability to overlay graphics over the map as layers. All of these are fairly advanced features, which while common in the civilian world were something military navigational devices often lacked. ATAK also includes targeting and runway survey features in its military version, which allows for observers and reconnaissance troops to work more efficiently.

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