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ARTICLE 

Data-Fusion Systems Help Ease ‘Information Overload’ 

11  2,002 

by John Burwell 

The visualization, high-performance computing and networking technologies initially developed for the simulation and training market now are being applied to command-and-control systems, to help commanders make decisions faster.

Command-and-control systems today provide operational commanders with a real-time, common and accurate view of the environment in which their forces operate. The tools enable the military commanders to know the location of friendly and enemy forces. Command and control is about knowing what assets are available and how to bring them to bear on the mission.

Meanwhile, the proliferation of sensors in the battlefield has created what is known as “data overload.”

Signals, imagery and human intelligence can be available to the commander at or near real-time speeds. As more sensors are put into the field, more data is captured that can be analyzed for the purposes of enhancing the decision-making process. There is a risk, however, that a large inflow of data could jeopardize the decision-making process, if the information is not managed properly.

Today, there is an abundance of data, but a shortage of information that supports the decision-making process. In the future, the amount of data will continue to grow, as more sources and sensors become available. The data typically includes text, video, audio, imagery, scans, electronic emissions and other geo-referenced data to support a variety of command-and-control applications.

Graphical representations—highlighting differences between data types and sizes—turn data into information. Military applications, where each piece of data can have a geo-spatial element, are served well by the ability to graphically represent the relative locations of people and objects.

Simply stated, using computer graphics, logistics information can be overlaid on maps. Positions of friendly forces can be represented pictorially on accurate and realistic three-dimensional terrain. Signal data can be fused with imagery to show the locations of transmissions. Video taken from unmanned aerial vehicles can be visually referenced to map locations where the video was taken.

To deal with this data overload problem, enhanced capabilities are required to manage, correlate, fuse and visualize data, in order to help commanders see the threat. The challenge for today’s military commanders is that they are inundated by too much data and not enough information.

Visualization and computing technologies are now available to allow commanders to rapidly assimilate the diverse streams of data being collected.

What is needed is a “decision support center” that can act as a data fusion engine, to help decision makers see the big picture and focus on making the right decisions.

A useful example of a decision support center is the U.S. Navy’s Area Air Defense Commander (AADC) system, already fielded onboard naval vessels. AADC is a battle-space management system that helps plan and coordinate joint theater air and missile defenses against ballistic and tactical missile attacks.

The system provides a single, integrated picture of the battle space, so that a joint-forces commander can gather data quickly on air and missile attacks and develop an air-defense plan that recommends tactical placement of air-defense assets from land and sea.

AADC’s real-time collaboration and war-gaming capability is embedded, so that every potential course of action and outcome is demonstrated before it is executed. Once commanders select a course of action, they can monitor events as they unfold, reacting to new threats and changing situations as they arise.

President George W. Bush said, after seeing the AADC system: “We’re witnessing a revolution in the technology of war. ... Advantage increasingly comes from information such as the three-dimensional images of the simulated battle that I have just seen.”

Decision support centers increase the value of collected information by allowing multi-source data fusion and presentation in a realistic digital environment where commanders can see the entire battle space using an intuitive interface.

These applications require significant gra-phics power to display the data in real time. They also require complex data management and high-performance computing.

Decision support centers could be described as an outgrowth of the so-called “reality center,” developed by SGI. Close to 600 centers have been installed worldwide and are used for a broad range of applications including oil and gas exploration, drug research and virtual prototyping of automobiles.

In the commercial market, reality centers are used to support some kind of decision-making process—which car to build, where to drill an oil well or what molecule is required to attack a virus. Now, that same technology is being applied to military command-and-control problems.

A typical reality center in the commercial world is a theater environment with usually one point of control—one person, in the back of the room, controlling a graphics supercomputer with a single keyboard and mouse.

In a decision support center, there can be anywhere from five to 100 direct participants in the decision-making process. The majority of these participants will be specialists, contributing specific talents or skills to the center. Many of them will use special-purpose workstations or consoles that perform unique tasks, such as radar processing, weather forecasting, traffic control or logistics.

In the military market, decision support centers are used to collect data and analyze, predict, rehearse, operate and review actions for exercises and operations. These actions range from targeting, defensive tactics to search and rescue missions.

The centers allow massive amounts of critical data to be shared and analyzed around the world in real time, resulting in effective and timely decisions. These centers are places for groups to make decisions quickly, collaboratively and confidently. Huge amounts of complex data-imagery, signal, terrain, geographical coordinates and more—are fused into a large-scale display that provides decision makers with a complete view of the situation and all its variables. Using that real-time data, decision makers can collaborate to find the best solutions during a crisis, for example.

Additionally, the decision support centers defy geographical boundaries. Decision makers anywhere in the world can collaborate. The technology allows users to access data and share information up and down the chain of command in real time.

The next evolutionary step for the decision support centers is the concept of visual area networking. This means that individual users and geographically dispersed teams can collaborate and have universal access to advanced visualization capabilities using any mix of client devices, including laptops and palm-sized computers.

In addition, separate decision support centers can be linked, so that the right visual information can be sent to the right person at the right time, compressing the decision cycle.

Technology Evolution
Over the past several years, technology has become available that has made it feasible for high-fidelity simulations to use large-area geographically specific visual databases. These geo-specific databases are emerging as the de facto standard in high-fidelity flight simulation.

The training and simulation industry has developed a process to produce real-world, geo-specific visual databases for pilot training that involves the collection and processing of raw image data to produce an earth-referenced product that can be visualized in two- or three-dimensions, using high-performance graphics hardware and software.

Pilots training in these simulators view scenes that look exactly as they do in the real world. The textures used in these applications have moved from geo-typical to geo-specific databases representing real-world images taken from aerial photography or from satellite imagery of a geographic location.

The value of this fidelity is that pilots can move almost instantly beyond basic part-task training to full mission training. However, the true value of geo-specific visual databases goes far beyond their use in simulation and training.

Because these visual databases are earth-referenced, they can be fused with a variety of other data, presented in different formats using different types of display products, annotated and modified.

At the same time, the commercial availability of high-resolution, satellite imagery is growing. All these elements, when properly combined and integrated, create an opportunity to develop a series of collaborative visualization capabilities for command and control applications. This merging of simulation and training technologies is a watershed event for the command and control community, which will benefit from years of development in synthetic environments, resulting in useful applications for network-centric warfare. nd

John Burwell is senior director of government industry at Silicon Graphics Inc., in Mountain View, Calif.

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