Looking to a cloud to share data faster

HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. – The Kill Chain Integration Branch here has begun an experimentation campaign to look at ways to provide warfighters data in the fastest and most efficient ways possible.

Called Data-to-Decisions, the campaign is in its early stages but, according to officials, is already showing the potential to provide promising results.

“Currently, once data is gathered, it’s sent back for data processing and analysis,” said Capt. Elizabeth Simkus, lead engineer, Data-to-Decisions. “It could take a while before that information gets back to a warfighter; we’re working to make that a more immediate result.”

The projects under this campaign are all part of a larger effort referred to as “combat cloud,” which aims to bridge the gap between different types of data and how that data is communicated across multiple platforms. This model is different than the typical cloud models provided by commercial cloud vendors, Simkus explained. It is more of a hybrid approach, consisting of multiple models in which data is processed, stored and communicated in a dynamic, distributed environment.

“Our network model is very challenging to solve because it has to account for the ever-changing air and ground environment in order to be fully integrated and optimized for data correlation,” she said.

However, it’s putting that piece in place that will help drive results.

“This, in turn, will help to enable faster and more efficient decision making in a wartime environment,” said Capt. Brenton Byrd-Fulbright, Data-to-Decisions program manager. One project the team is looking at is called the Tactical Cloud Reference Implementation, or TCRI.

“It’s basically putting the architecture [in place] for the combat cloud,” Simkus said.

TCRI is a software platform, which will provide a common framework to manage operational data while also performing analysis on this data through the use of automated, mathematical algorithms and analytics. Essentially, the concept is similar to how we utilize clouds to sync different data on our numerous smart devices such as tablets and smartphones. The difference is TCRI will largely function automatically, with little user input, and will only provide information that the user designates as relevant.

Simkus said that it will incorporate all commercially available, open source software. This provides myriad benefits including utilization of industry expertise and flexibility in design.

“This will also keep the Air Force on pace with industry innovation,” said Byrd-Fulbright.

The TCRI program is a joint program being worked on by the Air Force, Army, Defense Threat Reduction Agency and the Navy. Although originally led by the Navy, the Air Force will be sharing the lead role as future development progresses. Simkus said the team here is constantly looking at and leveraging the versions that are being released by the other organizations.

This past July, the team here used the Hanscom Collaboration and Innovation Center, or HCIC, to conduct an experiment with TCRI. In the experiment, the team collaborated with a local company, Avwatch, to demonstrate a new proof of concept: the ability to use a cloud to share data from a plane to a processing node on the ground. The team utilized an airborne TCRI laptop to ingest imagery taken by the aircraft camera and passed the imagery down to the HCIC. Along with this, the TCRI laptop on the aircraft also ingested GPS data from the plane’s location as it was taking images and passed this information as well.

Byrd-Fulbright said the result was a live update of the aircraft’s current and historical position or “airtrack” as it took the images, along with the actual images overlaid on a visual interface.

“The importance of this is that this concept can be utilized to help optimize imagery collection and data dissemination on an airborne platform via the cloud’s ability to sync data with other relevant information from other sources,” he said.

The team is planning another experiment, once again using the HCIC, but where they connect to multiple nodes, this time passing along not just information, but utilizing analytics to automatically identify specific objects, as well as anomalies that may be missed or hard to detect with the human eye.

Currently, the team is also looking to set up a software development and modeling and simulation environment at the HCIC.

“Our software engineers would like to use it to develop and write code,” Simkus said. “And although we’d be the first users, once it’s stood up and functional, the idea would be that it would be available to other programs for use as well.”

In addition, she also mentioned the team is creating a new Hanscom initiative called the Hanscom Academic Cloud Team (HACT). This initiative will be a partnership between Hanscom, the Massachusetts Open Cloud consortium (consisting of local universities such as Harvard, Mass. Institute of Technology, Boston University, the University of Mass. and Northeastern, as well as numerous industry partners), and other non-local universities that would like to collaborate on research and development efforts towards cloud computing concepts, models and prototypes.

Officials say this initiative leverages the knowledge of students from top universities and industry partners. The HACT will also attempt to provide opportunities for Hanscom engineers to work side by side with some of the best software developers and engineers through internships and advanced academic degree programs in an effort to bring that expertise back into the military.

“We want to collaborate and see where military, academia and industry can help each other,” Simkus said. “The research others are doing could help with military applications.”