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CHIPS Articles: Shipboard Personal Digital Assistants

Shipboard Personal Digital Assistants
By Beth Champion Mason and Israel Rodriguez - July-September 2001
You don't have to look very far in private industry to see that handheld computing devices Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) are taking the world by storm. Commercial giants, like Volvo, Sears, Roebuck and Co. and the BF Goodrich Corporation, are already taking advantage of this technology to increase the efficiency of their business practices. Because of the versatility and mobility of PDAs, the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center (SPAWARSYSCEN) Chesapeake is now exploring this technology for the Navy, finding ways to make routine tasks better and faster with wireless automation.

Background

To maintain military readiness, the Navy performs a myriad of tasks, including inspection of personnel and equipment, personnel accounting, training, food preparation/meal service, equipment maintenance, inventory, etc. Many of these tasks are performed in remote environments such as onboard ship or on the field, where information is traditionally captured on paper and later entered into the activity's computer system.

Inspections alone can generate mountains of paperwork that requires manual data entry, resulting in problems related to the timeliness and accuracy of information. Furthermore, the nature of certain inspections and other tasks-often conducted in cramped submarines, aircrafts, and ships-without access to power outlets-prohibits the use of laptop or clamshell computers, which offer both limited mobility and battery life.

Under the leadership of Commanding Officer, Captain Thomas McIlravy, SPAWAR Chesapeake is tasked to develop Navy-specific software to assist Naval personnel in increasing their efficiency in performing their duties. As wireless and handheld technologies have emerged and become more prevalent in the government arena, SPAWAR has moved to increase its depth of expertise in mobile applications development.

To accomplish this goal, SPAWAR Chesapeake organized a team of PDA developers led by Israel Rodriguez. Now with the Mobile Computing team in place, SPAWAR Chesapeake can extend much of the functionality of the Navy's existing systems to the PDA format, and is eliminating the problems associated with paper data collection and the manual data entry it necessitates.

The SPAWAR PDA applications used on both the Palm operating system and Windows CE platform, extend the reach of existing Naval Tactical Command Support System (NTCSS) and other corporate systems, facilitating data collection in the field. The handheld devices are small enough for efficient use for cramped, shipboard inspections.

Efforts to Date

SPAWAR Chesapeake developed nine proof-of-concept applications for the PDA platform, several of which are already in use in beta test basis onboard ship. One of these proof-of-concept applications is the Zone Inspection Deficiency Listing System (ZIDLS). Currently, when zone inspections take place, an inspector records grades and deficiencies only on a paper checklist, which must then be typed in a report and physically routed to the Division Officer for action and sign-off. The ZIDLS for PDA converts this paper method to an electronic system, allowing inspectors to create and complete their deficiency listings entirely on a handheld device, for uploading to a personal computer (PC). Action reports can also be printed.

Another SPAWAR-developed application is the SAMS Environmental Health Module for PDA (SAMS EH). The SNAP (Shipboard Nontactical ADP [automated data processing] Program) Automated Medical System (SAMS) desktop application tracks the medical and dental readiness of operational units in the Navy and Marine Corps. The Environmental Health Module of SAMS tracks environmental conditions that affect Sailors and Marines, including heat stress monitoring, potable water testing, and pest control.

With the SAMS Environmental Health Module for PDA, a hospital corpsman can record environmental conditions directly into the handheld device. This process eliminates the redundancies of paper processing and manual data entry into SAMS at a later time. It makes fluctuating data like heat stress conditions available for immediate use. The SAMS EH application for PDA has been released in a beta version and is currently in use on the USS McFaul, USS Shreveport and USS Monterey.

The SAMS Supply module for PDA extends the reach of SAMS. This application automates labor-intensive processes associated with medical supplies inventory and management. With SAMS Supply for PDA, a user can download inventory records, check off items in the supply area, and send this data back to SAMS instantly.

The NTCSS Food Management Systems (FSM) Daily Breakout for PDA mimics the FSM desktop application, which provides an automated means for Navy personnel to perform all functions related to daily operations for Navy messes afloat and ashore. This includes processing daily requests for food to be drawn from storerooms—compiled by computing the amounts of food and ingredients necessary to prepare daily meals.

This function, called daily breakout, involves a paper-based “shopping list” of supplies that a Sailor uses to gather food supplies from storerooms and delivers to the mess area where the meal will be prepared. The FSM daily breakout application for PDA takes this paper-based process entirely into electronic format allowing a user to download the breakout list to a handheld device, check off items in the storeroom, and then upload the information into FSM by simply syncing the PDA.

Other applications developed for PDA include:

NTCSS R-ADM Training. The Relational Administrative Data Management (R-ADM) PC system manages administrative and personnel data, including all service member training information. This application allows instructors to use a handheld device to take attendance in class and record absentee comments electronically. They can then upload this data directly to R-ADM.

NTCSS R-ADM Muster. The R-ADM Muster application provides a portable way to record muster attendance and absentee comments similar to the R-ADM Training application. Muster data can then be sent directly to the host R-ADM system without redundant data entry.

Optimized Organizational Maintenance Activity (OOMA) A-Sheets and Inspection Record for PDA. This application provides an electronic version of the A-Sheet and other inspection forms for aircraft. Inspectors in the field can use the PDA for an electronic checklist and then upload data directly to the Naval Aviation Logistics Command Management Information System (NALCOMIS) with the press of a button.

Automated Travel Order System Plus (ATOSPlus) Traveler Per Diem. This application extends the capabilities of ATOSPlus Traveler by allowing a traveler to download current per diem tables and instantly calculate costs for business travel anywhere in the world.

ATOSPlus Traveler Travel Voucher. This application extends ATOSPlus Traveler allowing business travelers to create their vouchers on a handheld device while in a travel status. Once they are back in the office, travelers can upload their vouchers to the host system with the press of a button, so their expense claims can be processed almost immediately.

Why Use PDA Applications?

Each of the proof of concept applications in use enhances the efficiency and accuracy of tasks. Instead of recording data on paper and then wasting additional man hours to enter that same data—risking input errors and omissions in the process—the individual recording the data enters it directly into a PDA device. The next time the device is synced, the data is automatically updated to the host PC system.

Use of this technology provides numerous benefits to the Navy:
- Field level automation. The mobile devices enable personnel in the field to access Navy-specific applications digitally, anytime and anywhere.
- Elimination of paper recordkeeping.
- Elimination of lost data. Data is captured digitally and synced directly with the required Navy database.
- More accurate data. SPAWAR is able to standardize terms and utilize drop-down menus to restrict choices and this provides more accurate data for trends analysis.
- Streamlined working environment and data collection procedures.
- Time and cost savings.

The following estimates show the anticipated time savings for each application.

  • ATOSPlus Per Diem Calculator for PDA saves the time needed to research and calculate per diem costs. Time saved varies according to the availability of per diem data.
  • ATOSPlus Travel Voucher for PDA makes use of typically wasted time by allowing a traveler to create a travel voucher anytime and anywhere.
  • FSM Daily Breakout for PDA saves three to five hours per breakout preparation and data entry time.
  • OOMA A-Sheets and Inspection Record saves approximately 30 minutes per aircraft landing or inspection in data entry time.
  • R-ADM Training saves approximately one to two hours per instructional course in data entry time.
  • R-ADM Muster saves approximately one to two hours per muster in data entry time.
  • SAMS Environmental Health saves approximately one to two hours per week in inspection and data entry time.
  • SAMS Supply saves approximately 10 hours per medical supplies inventory and data entry for a small vessel such as a submarine. For vessels, like hospital ships, the time saved could actually be hundreds of hours saved annually.
  • ZIDLS saves approximately 30 minutes per inspection in the time needed to type a report from a paper conducted inspection.

New Ideas Development

When Navy activities have an idea for PDA applications, SPAWAR Chesapeake immediately begins work to transform those ideas into realities. Since the PDA development is so short (typically about eight to 12 weeks), SPAWAR can turn the projects around in a responsive, rapid fashion.

Conclusion

Considering the virtually endless array of peripherals available for PDA devices, the possibilities for innovative development are limited only by the imagination. Peripherals, like barcode scanners, data button readers/writers, digital camera attachments, and wireless modems, are only a tiny sampling of the PDA add-ons that can take business solution much further.

A centralized PDA effort can harness these possibilities to launch the Navy into the future of PDA technology.

Beth Champion Mason is the functional analyst for the mobile computing team, SPAWARSYSCEN Chesapeake.

Israel Rodriguez is the department head for the Medical & System Administration department, SPAWARSYSCEN Chesapeake.

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