Custom Android tablets solve rugged and security needs

August 1, 2016 OpenSystems Media

Over the past several years, the use of tablet technology has proliferated not only for personal use, but also across industry and government. These portable platforms, with easily written custom application software, are suitable for many applications. However, iOS and most Android tablets often fall short in industrial, military, and medical use for a variety of reasons. Custom Android tablets overcome these shortcomings.

Why consumer-grade tablets fail in industrial, medical, and military use

Consumer-grade tablets fail in the field for many reasons, including the following:

Insufficient ruggedness

Consumer-grade tablets are often repackaged, placed within more rugged outer enclosures. While this improves the tablet’s ability to withstand hazards such as drops, impacts, and liquids, they still often fall short of surviving in harsh environments such as exposure to caustic chemicals, extremely wide temperatures, or direct impacts to the display.

Feature mismatch

Consumer grade tablets often lack interfaces required for specific operations. Examples include wired Ethernet, RS-232, SPI, I2C, CAN, or even multiple USB interfaces. It is often possible to retrofit such hardware interfaces through the tab-let’s micro USB or headphone connectors. However, retrofits are often mechanically unstable and sometimes insufficient to implement multiple interfaces. Recognition of the hardware at the operating system level may not be easy to accomplish.

Unreadable in sunlight

Most consumer-oriented displays are not easily read in bright environments or under direct sunlight. This is unacceptable in mission critical applications, where any loss in readability or required associated adjustment in display orientation can potentially result in loss of equipment or data, or even endanger a life.

Short product life cycle

Most industrial, medical, and military devices require long procurement cycles, often 10 years or more. These devices often require several years of development and test prior to deployment, with large engineering expenses. Consumer-grade tablets typically are not available for more than a couple of years. An early lifetime buy is often required, incurring costly inventories and often surpassing product warranty periods. Product upgrades to work around tablet obsolescence often incur large, sustained engineering costs.

Relative lack of security

Consumer-grade tablets, with their accessible operating systems and rich application ecosystems, are occasionally repurposed, but once they are reset to factory default configuration, the tablet may be used as if purchased anew. Such a general-purpose tablet could be stolen and reused or resold. Therefore, maintaining a tablet fleet can become problematic.

Uncontrolled software upgrades

Vendors of consumer grade tablets, whether iOS or Android, deploy software upgrades to tablets on their schedules. These upgrades can modify configuration settings, introduce unexpected incompatibilities with applications software, and interfere with critical operations at inconvenient times. Without complete control over software, including the deployment of updates, business or perhaps life-critical operation may be compromised.

Custom Android tablets: the solution for sustainable deployment

Android, with its open architecture and available source code, enables device customization at the hardware, operating system, and application levels. Custom hardware must be enabled by customized operating system access, which Android al-lows. iOS, because of its closed operating system, usually prevents such modifications. Therefore, custom Android tab-lets can satisfy the majority of custom applications.

Additionally, custom Android tablets solve the above listed issues as follows:

Rugged design

Custom electronic devices inherently meet specific product requirements by design, whether electronic or environmental. Rugged devices often must meet a variety of specifications – extended temperatures, high humidity, vibration, impact, drop, liquid submersion, corrosive liquids, sand/dust ingress, solar loading, flammability, intrinsic safety, and more. A vendor experienced with rugged device design can efficiently develop enclosures and packages that meet requirements and not rely on a retrofit outer enclosure that may have weaknesses.

Custom features

Custom electronic design enables a product to include, as a part of the core circuitry, all required interfaces, including those not standard on tablet platforms. This allows features such as wired Ethernet, RS-232, CAN, rugged displays, specific sensors, physical security and more to be implemented without external adapters which may be prone to damage, removal, or even hacking.

Sunlight readability

Specialty displays are required for readability in bright envi-ronments or in direct sunlight. Transflective displays allow for sunlight readability without rapid battery drain, but often at the cost of vibrant colors. High brightness displays maintain color, but more rapidly drain battery charge. A custom Android tab-let can implement either type, based on application needs and proper tradeoff analysis.

Long product life cycle

Properly designed custom Android tablets account for long-time product availability. This starts with the selection of a microprocessor with long life support by its vendor, such as the NXP i.MX 6 microprocessor with expected availability for up to 15 years. Other constituent components are also critical. A vendor experienced with custom electronic design for indus-trial, medical, and military devices understands such supply chain issues and properly accounts for product lifespan during initial design.

Security

Enhanced security features can be incorporated in custom Android tablets, including hardware-level tamper detection, soft-ware and configuration lockdown that prevents a user from installing unintended software or otherwise repurposing the tablet, wiping tablet contents under certain predefined security violations, and even geo-fencing/geo-bricking to restrict operation to certain predefined geographic coordinates.

Controlled software upgrades

Custom Android tablets necessarily utilize an associated custom Android operating system. Being disassociated from commercial tablet, the owner of the custom tablet determines how and when, if ever, a software upgrade is deployed. This enables precise control of deployed devices, allowing the owner – not a commercial tablet vendor – to provide updates within the confines of its regulatory and business requirements.

Full flexibility in the design of custom Android tablets is critical for vendors of industrial, medical, and military devices so the tablet can be customized to the application’s exact specifications. A custom tablet can also provide flexibility in development time and cost by starting from a known, proven design. In this way, custom Andriod tablets can meet the unique needs of industrial, military, and medical applications, ultimately improving the safety, efficiency, and cost effective-ness of their operations.

Rodney Feldman is Director of Systems Engineering at InHand Electronics.

Rodney Feldman, InHand Electronics
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