Drone Sensor Data Will Overload Networks, Navy Officials Warn

By Grace V. Jean
The expected growth of unmanned systems at sea is raising concerns that the Navy’s networks are ill prepared to handle the commensurate flood of data that the sensors will produce.

"The Navy’s architecture is not designed to address the influx of sensors that is coming on,” said Chris Miller, executive director of the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Atlantic.

The Navy’s maritime intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance roadmap indicates that officials intend to field a fleet of unmanned undersea vehicles by the end of the decade along with a squadron of unmanned carrier-launched aircraft by 2018. The fleet already is operating several robotic helicopters to support ongoing operations in Afghanistan and Somalia, and those systems are producing a lot of data, officials said at a recent naval IT conference in Vienna, Va.

“Information is exploding and much of it is coming from the sea,” said David Weddel, assistant deputy chief of naval operations for information dominance.
As the Navy fields unmanned systems, the demand for bandwidth and data is going to increase by more than 1,000 percent, he said.

“In the past, we always received more information [at sea] than we ever had to push back,” he said. “That equation has changed.”

The MQ-8 Fire Scout, a vertical take-off and landing unmanned aerial vehicle, or VTUAV, is producing a fair amount of data and that number is only going to increase as more systems hit the fleet, Weddel said. There are two VTUAVs operating from frigates sailing off the coast of Somalia conducting anti-piracy operations and supporting special operations forces ashore. One was reportedly shot down in June over Libya, where it had been diverted to support NATO forces. Three more Fire Scouts are supporting troops in Afghanistan.

Weddel said the Navy has plans to develop a follow-on to those aircraft. The medium-range maritime unmanned air system will carry heavier payloads and have longer endurance, he added.

Beneath the ocean, sailors are operating unmanned undersea vehicles called littoral battle space gliders that sense water temperature and salinity. The submersible robots are producing large amounts of data because they capture pictures of the ocean battle space, said Weddel. Three of them deployed last year to the Gulf of Mexico to support government officials during the BP oil spill crisis. They were employed to help track the location and depth of the oil.

These semi-autonomous vehicles and drones — in conjunction with other manned naval systems such as the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye aircraft — are expected to carry sophisticated sensors and other equipment to quickly provide sailors with pertinent battle information.

“We’re all in on sensors,” said Miller. “But what we haven’t done is balance out the equation and make sure I’ve got the bandwidth coming to my ships to make sure I can get that data off the ship,” he said. Industry will offer solutions to speed up data and processing on the network, he added. While that is helpful, “my argument is, we need a bigger systems of systems architecture and discussion about what we need to go do,” he said.

And it is not only the drones and underwater robots driving up the demand for bandwidth and network capability. Ships themselves will too, officials said.

The Navy’s newest class of surface combatants, the littoral combat ship, will become increasingly dependent on Defense Department networks for reach back capability to attain operational support and intelligence from shore-based systems. The ship was designed to operate with a small onboard crew of about 40 sailors and a support team ashore to take care of administrative duties, including maintenance and supply. As a result, communications from the ship back to shore is critical.

“So here you have a platform that moves at high speeds from hotspot to hotspot,” said Rear Adm. Edward “Ned” Deets III, commander of the Naval Network Warfare Command. “How do you prepare the [commanding officer] and crew with the level of information and capability that they need for the next threat which, at the speed of operation of this ship, is in many cases simply three to four to five hours away?”

The challenge this presents to the Navy is the capacity to move information — whether it’s satellite-based, line of sight-based, or within networks aboard ships — and to analyze the data.

“An awful lot of data is going to fall on the cutting room floor if we can’t figure out how we can automate the data processing and data analysis,” said Weddel.

There also needs to be a discussion about how much information is stored aboard a ship and how much of it can be posted to a site or uploaded to another repository where it is retrievable via Defense Department networks.

“It could be the marines on the beach, or maybe the SOF we’re supporting in the Horn of Africa. It’s not just about the Navy,” Weddel said.

Whatever network supports this must be able to form and reform very quickly, especially when it comes to data links between ships and the unmanned systems, he added. Data links are the “pipes” that systems use to communicate. Many data links are proprietary and limit the ability to share information among multiple sensors and networks.

“There’s nothing common about common data links, and it’s killing me,” said Weddel. There are at least 11 different common data link programs and three additional ones for the Marine Corps, he pointed out. “It has to stop. I don’t have enough antennas onboard ship to do it, and it’s hurting our war fighting capability,” he said.

The Navy is making plans to pursue a true common system beginning in 2013, he added.  

The other challenge to consider is the Navy’s reliance upon satellites to transmit its communications globally. “Bandwidth for the time being is adequate. But what happens when the bandwidth becomes limited or adversaries start jamming satellites?” Weddel said. Potential enemies have realized how much the Defense Department depends upon space-based systems to conduct its business. The ability to jam satellites is available, he pointed out. “So the question becomes, ‘How does the Navy maintain connectivity within the battle group?’” he said. The department is conducting a study for a joint airborne layer network that could substitute for jammed satellite networks. Officials intend to budget for the system in 2014.

Industry can help solve the Navy’s network challenge by automating some of the processes, designing common antennas and conforming to standard waveforms and capability. It can also address human factor issues, such as making the networked information easier for young sailors to manipulate and digest.

Another challenge is information assurance — securing the information once it enters Navy networks. A large part of that is imbuing into the Navy culture the idea that IT networks are combat systems, and that they need to be treated as such, said Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert, who has been tapped to replace Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead, who is retiring.                    

Topics: Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles

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