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PDA reports for active duty

A 5-ounce weapon of war, the device is being used by the military in many ways, from helping downed pilots to looking up Arabic phrases.

May 21, 2003|Terril Yue Jones | Times Staff Writer

As personal technologies go, the Palm Pilot personal digital assistant has managed to become both an essential tool and a cultural symbol. The hand-held computer, born in Silicon Valley, is barely bigger than a cassette tape but keeps track of the schedules and address books of millions of the techno-masses. California's official Web site ( has a banner illustration across the top of the page with images of Golden State natives: Napa Valley grapes, San Francisco's cable car, the Hollywood sign -- and a Palm Pilot.

With recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. military is discovering the benefits of hand-held computing, whether on board ship, during training or on the battlefield.

While technology has traditionally flowed from the military-industrial complex to the civilian world, the military is latching onto the devices, which were pioneered by Milpitas, Calif.-based Palm Inc. More than 21 million Palm hand-helds have been sold, along with some 7 million more made by Sony Corp., Handspring Inc. and Hand- Era Inc.

While civilians use Palms to e-mail, play games and keep track of schedules, soldiers have used Palms to determine if mass casualties have been inflicted by chemical or biological weapons. Navy SEAL commandos can use the devices to learn high and low tides around the world to help plan assaults. Troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have used them to look up helpful Arabic and Pashto phrases, such as, "Where is there water?" or "Put your hands over your head."

The PDAs, as they are known, can hold an encyclopedia's worth of information in a sleek package weighing only 5 or 6 ounces. At times they can be more valuable to soldiers than a machine gun or a gas mask.

Take the "Afghanistan evasion map," which is designed to help downed pilots or escaped prisoners of war get out from behind enemy lines.

"It's for when someone's hunting you," says Chris Michel, chief executive of Military Advantage Inc., which sells the map and dozens of other Palm programs, including a guide to Morse code and a primer on martial arts. "You need to find landmarks, you need to get out. At a time like that, your Palm Pilot is your digital Swiss army knife."

There's no way to know how many PDAs are currently in use by service members, since the Pentagon doesn't centralize purchases. But individual military units and commands have ordered tens of thousands of them, and service members buy tens of thousands more on their own.

In a sign of the PDAs' increasing importance, cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point are issued Palms upon entering as freshmen. The Navy bestows them on students at its Officer Candidate School and at the U.S. Naval Academy and when they graduate.

The hand-helds can replace overstuffed clipboards and volumes of manuals, military tactics and paperwork, compacting them into small units that don't get smudged or scattered by the wind. Their size makes them ideal for taking notes while crawling through tight compartments in the bowels of a ship. And at prices as low as $99 for the entry-level Palm Zire, they're affordable.

The military was eager to take advantage of PDAs and started developing its own applications for Palm devices about five years ago, according to John Inkley, Palm's federal sales manager. Several private companies -- many of them founded by veterans -- followed suit. Palm flew some of its software developers to Washington to meet with potential customers. In a series of meetings with Navy officers and engineers, they brainstormed ways that PDAs could replace paper and equipment. "It was mutual development with new technology," Inkley says. .

Today, the military uses Palms for an array of tasks that help it prepare for and conduct warfare.

A program based on the Army Combat Guide gives troops a quick reference as they carry out various types of assaults, ranging from an attack inside an urban building to an ambush in the desert. "It's not a situation where you'll have time to whip out a big textbook in the middle of battle to see, 'What do we do next?' " says Oke Johnson, a former Army tank officer whose Boulder, Colo., company, Warrior Solutions Inc., sells the program for $120.

Aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, which launched hundreds of sorties against Iraq, specialists known as Landing Signals Officers use Palms to grade pilot landings.

The Palms save about 90 minutes of paperwork a day and are far more convenient than hauling a notebook around the wind-whipped landing deck, says Lt. Rocky "Knute" Baker, an LSO and S-3 Viking pilot.

Once a battle is over, a program from Arsoft helps soldiers determine whether the dead and wounded were victims of nuclear, biological or chemical weapons. The program lets soldiers click through a checklist of pulse, breathing rate, skin color, presence of spasms, blisters or burns, eye conditions and even odors to determine the nature of the attack.

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