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 tablet’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 sustaining engineering costs.
- Relative lack of security: consumer grade tablets, with their accessible operating systems and rich application ecosystems, are on occasion repurposed from their deployed use. Once reset to factory default configuration, the tablet may be used as if purchased anew. General applications can be installed and run. Such a general purpose tablet could be stolen and reused or resold. Maintaining a tablet fleet becomes 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 allows. iOS, because of its closed operating system, usually prevents such modifications. Therefore custom Android tablets 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 environments 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 tablet 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 industrial, medical, and military devices understands such supply chain issues and properly accounts for product lifespan during initial design.
- Security: Android tablet customization can include more than just electronics and packaging. Enhanced security features can be incorporated, including hardware-level tamper detection, software 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 determined how and when, if ever, a software upgrade is deployed. This enables precise control of deployed devices, and allows the owner to provide updates within the confines of its regulatory and business requirements, and not at the unrelated schedule of a commercial tablet vendor.
Custom Android tablets by InHand
InHand offers full flexibility in the design of custom Android tablets for vendors of industrial, medical, and military devices. Based on the Hydra-F6 tablet, designed completely in-house, the resulting tablet meets the application’s exact specifications. Utilizing our modified COTS approach, the custom tablet starts from a known, proven design, significantly reducing development time and cost.
Here are some ways the Hydra-F6 rugged tablet platform can be modified to create a custom product:
- Private labeling with your company name and logo, with an enclosure look and feel you require
- Specific connectors that allow docking and connection of external devices as needed
- Integrated peripheral circuitry, such as Ethernet, RS-232, other serial, NFC, radios, or fingerprint readers
- Batteries optimized to the peripheral set and application run time
- Rugged display enabling sunlight readability while improving impact resistance
- Certifiable design enabling deployment for strictly regulated applications such as industrial testing, medical, avionics, and real time safety critical use cases
Going beyond custom design, InHand can take the customized tablet through regulatory certification testing (including FCC, IC, CE, UL, cellular/PTCRB, and more), and then manufacture it as a turnkey solution. Adding InHand’s SecuritySmart™, ReliabilitySmart™, and UpdateSmart™ technologies provides a secure custom tablet solution with completely controlled updates and the ability to recover bricked devices in the field.