F-16 pilots may soon be using small Windows 8 tablets in flight

An F-16 pilot getting buckled into his fighter before take-off. Credit: Flickr by Robert Couse-Baker

Inside the cramped cabin of an F-16 fighter jet, military pilots have to bring in a lot of gear: printed reports, flight maps, manuals, and paper checklists for their missions and aircraft procedures.

"It's like sitting in a tub," an F-16 pilot who asked for anonymity told CITEworld. "They have side arm controllers, so the flight controls are where you rest your arms. It's a tight cockpit. There's not a lot of room for stuff."

To try to solve those space problems, Netherlands-based PaceBlade Technology is working to develop a digital flight bag for F-16 pilots using 8-inch Windows 8 tablet computers. The small tablets can easily fit inside the cramped workspace and sit right on a pilot's knee.

PaceBlade CTO Eric Cornelisse, who has served as a military pilot in his native Netherlands and is now in the reserves there, said that he and others in his company were approached directly by other military pilots who were seeking answers to the problem. 

Cornelisse explained why the company took a chance on the new 8-inch Windows 8 tablet recently released by Acer, the Iconia W3, rather than sticking with the more common iPad or Android tablets that other companies are using for similar projects.

"Military pilots are doing trials with iPads and also working with Android devices around the world," he said. "But there were a couple common things that they found. The iPad was too big and they didn't have full control over the content."

But what about the smaller iPad mini? "The iPad is too big and the iPad mini is too small. We actually needed an 8 -inch tablet to do the job.” That's because it's exactly the same size as the paper pads that F-16 pilots already use.

But size wasn't the only factor, said Cornelisse. "Also, they had to use iTunes to get their documents, so the security wasn't suitable to work with highly classified content. There were some workarounds but they took too long and it was way too much work."

The ability to maintain full control over the Windows 8 hardware for military needs was another key reason for using the platform, he said. "Microsoft offers a private cloud solution, a private store where an air force or big company can have their own environment and their own content besides what Windows offers to their customers," said Cornelisse.

Integration with existing IT systems was also a benefit. "Windows 8 on tablets will work perfectly with their existing Windows IT systems. It's a lot easier to connect to that and use all the options when you have all your tablets and devices working on the same system."

The PaceBlade approach also includes more than just the tablets and the software that run on them, said Martin Schoonderbeek, the company's CEO. "We built a framework that is the application, the tablet, the network and the cloud infrastructure" all working as one to serve military pilots. "We didn't develop just an app, but also a framework to tie it all together on the tablet and in the cloud."

The idea of replacing flight bags with tablets is not new. Civilian airlines including Alaska Airlines are already using digital flight bags to help their pilots reduce the paper they have to carry on flights as well as help them improve overall information management in aircraft cabins.

In fact, PaceBlade has already built similar products for commercial aviation, said Cornelisse, but military pilots and organizations required a more specialized approach. That's where the needs of F-16 pilots to have an application and an appropriately-sized tablet were directly targeted. "They can now get their information up to 75 percent faster," using the tablets rather than the paper manuals. "More importantly, they got rid of all the paper and can have just one device on their knee."

So far, the PaceBlade technology using Windows 8 and the smaller tablets is still in the testing and proof of concept stages, said Schoonderbeek. Both executives said they couldn't discuss the identities of any global military organizations that might be perusing the new technology. 

But Cornelisse recently participated in a live presentation at a Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference showcasing PaceBlade's Windows 8 military product. He starred in a video piloting an F-16 while using one of the tablets.

The same technologies in the tablet platform are also being eyed for other industries, he said, from financial and banking companies to healthcare organizations and others that need secure, mobile and customizable cloud platforms for their businesses.

"Everybody using a tablet for classified or sensitive data will be able to use this," said Cornelisse. "We proved it in aviation and we are showing how it can be used in business, too."

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