First responders are among the biggest consumers of rugged computers, according to Dell brand manager Joe Trickey.

Rugged's Mass Appeal

These machines appeal to a growing number of industry sectors, and rugged hand-helds aren't far off, says Dell Brand Manager Joe Trickey.

Admittedly, the sweet spot for rugged computers has not changed. The U.S. military and law enforcement remain the top markets for manufacturers of these hardy machines. But more and more sectors find them appealing, Joe Trickey, Dell's brand manager for rugged and digital forensics, said during a May 13 interview.

The U.S. Department of Defense is the single biggest consumer of the company's rugged line, followed by law enforcement, first responders, and EMTs, Trickey said. "People who need a rugged type product that can meet these military standards and be durable, portable, and drive applications include oil and gas, building inspectors, and fire departments for arson investigations because they can survive" the water and grime at such scenes.

Construction and ranch management are just two of these additional markets. "People are finding ways to use products like this a lot more. There are just so many possibilities out there," said Trickey. "Wherever there's going to be a case where you might have outside conditions that can change in a matter of minutes. People who work outside need this -- range managers, the storm chasers you see on TV. New uses pop up every day.

"It's really for someone who's going to be in such an environment where there is a propensity for drops, falls," and harsh environments, such as on oil and gas platforms, he said.

It's important to virtually every buyer, civilian or military, that the computers meet military standards -- MIL-STD-810G in particular. This 2008 DoD standard defines testing for resistance to altitude, humidity, shock, low and high temperatures, vibration, solar radiation, contamination by fluids, and more. Customers also look for the Ingress Protection rating, a two-number rating that tells them about resistant to dust, water, and immersion.

"The markets for these are growing," Trickey said. "I can take an everyday notebook and put it into a car. But down here in Texas -- you know this humidity and heat and temperature -- you put a typical notebook into a police car on a typical August Texas day, it is not going to survive very long and live up to those standards. You need to have a rugged design, a broader band of thermal tolerance.”

"One begets the other," said Scott Radcliffe of the technology public relations firm AxiCom, who handles Dell's global government communications. "Now that they have the capability to allow officers to have these notebooks in their cruisers, then solutions develop to help them do their jobs better. So these better applications beget better solutions for people elsewhere who need to operate in rugged environments."

"You get the hardware, you get the software development team, and it builds around that," Trickey agreed. "The capability of the hardware has to increase to drive those applications. It starts its own cycle."

Dell recently introduced Spektor, a mobile solution for law enforcement and the military. They can take it to crime scenes, for example, image the data from a host of electronic devices -- cell phones and smart phones, laptops, desktop computers, gaming consoles, even refrigerators that store digital information -- and then identify the important information right at the scene. "Time-sensitive intelligence, what have you," Radcliffe said. "If you're in forensics in the military, for example, you can have that capability and take this notebook with you. It doesn't matter how you have to insert yourself into this situation; you can still take that notebook with you and because it's hardened, this particular solution has a viability in this particular market that helps them do that job better."

This is digital forensics, the core science of extracting the data from all sorts of devices that people and businesses own. Investigators can go back and find the source and altered versions of even deleted files. "It really takes Orwell's 1984 to almost an incredible level," said Trickey.

Watchdog agencies such as inspectors general, building security companies, and insurance adjusters are showing interest in Spektor. The watchdogs and adjusters want to be able to take these rugged systems anywhere inside business premises to check for fraud or violations of regulatory practices. Trickey said word of mouth appears to be spreading the news among state agencies about the mobile technology, which Dell launched in March 2011.

Today's and Tomorrow's New Products
At the time of the interview, Dell was about to introduce the fourth generation of its rugged notebooks. Customers' feedback was a critical part of the process of developing it, which lasted 16-18 months, Trickey said. "It really can survive impact, falls with distance, and has sort of a magnesium alloy core, if you will. To save on the weight, we use a lighter material around all of the impact sides which is impact resistant; in some ways, the impact resistance is even stronger than the magnesium. So it makes it a real durable, dependable notebook."

He said there has always been a need to have a critical product that can handle spills or being used out in the rain. Being a collaborative solutions company and taking a mission-based approach to solving problems is highly important to Dell, and in fact this is how digital forensics came about, Trickey said.

Some customers don't need a machine that meets the highest mil specs; a semi rugged computing category may work for them. These products don't meet every single mil standard test and accordingly are priced somewhat lower. If you're working in Michigan, for example, the thermal tolerance needed for notebooks used in Texas isn't necessary, Trickey explained. He said there are some differences in durability features, different materials and some different hardware solutions are used.

Warranties on rugged notebooks are the same as those for standard notebooks. However, research proves the rugged devices last longer and are less likely to fail than standard notebooks, Trickey said.

Insurance adjusters appreciate having a fully convertible notebook that can be used as a tablet, and soon there may be thousands of professionals clamoring for hand-held rugged devices. "As these markets start to emerge, we're also looking forward into the future," he explains. "Where the notebook stops and then you move to hand-helds, when there is a market for rugged hand-helds. Those things we are keeping our eye on, to make sure Dell's taking it into account.”

He said the capabilities and features in a rugged notebook versus a rugged hand-held are some things they're evaluating. "There are two schools of thought within the company on when, where, and how. We haven't given up one as opposed to the other, it's kind of going in parallel. Probably notebooks and convertible tablets will be out there for the next two and a half to three years. Demand will drive need; as the processing power of hand-helds rises, fully rugged hand-helds will be needed. I think it's several years down the road."

He agreed the time to start developing such products is already at hand. "You have to be there with the product when the people need it," he said.

This article originally appeared in the July 2011 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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