Last month, Lockheed-Martin brought an independently developed test aircraft, called the Airborne Multi-Intelligence Lab, to the Army’s C4ISR On-the-Move exercise,
which took place at and near Ft. Dix and Lakehurst, New Jersey. The AML is a repurposed used Gulfstream III corporate jet equipped with a large radome and commercial electronics racks; the aircraft is designed for testing the integration of multiple sensors and open architecture intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems, providing aggregation of multiple sensors right on the aircraft by analysts, who pass that data to operators on the ground.
I spoke with Lockheed’s Jim Quinn, vice president, and John Beck and Mark Wand, both with Lockheed’s business development group. Here’s the interview:
Jim Quinn: A little over 10 or 11 months ago, Lockheed martin made some decisions, investment decisions in particular that looked at where the customer set was going — some of their higher priority needs. This was driven both internationally as well as domestically, and the importance of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance in supporting operations around the globe.
We recognized that a lot of the difficulty that our customers were having were trying to take advantage of multiple sensors, and to fuse and correlate that data in a way that it provided meaningful and actionable intelligence to war fighters on the edge. Whether they be war fighters on the edge or a command post or ground station that were trying to turn that information into usable knowledge.
We know that a lot of the platforms and sensors that are in operation around the world do that in a single int. fashion. They are a dedicated platform that collects a single (form of) intelligence, whether it be synthetic aperture radar, or FLIR (forward looking infrared), kinds of electro-optic sensors, or whether it be a sigint (signals intelligence) sensor, and then usually that data is transported by data link to some sort of ground station, and in many cases those ground stations are dedicated to the platform and the sensor that they are affiliated with. So we recognize the value of trying to have at our customers’ disposal and for our own experimentation, a platform that could take and plug-and-play various sensors in a multi-intelligence configuration. That would allow us to investigate how we take multiple inputs from sensors, and then either cross-queue or show the benefit of merging and synthesizing that data onboard the platform, and then pushing it down to the users on the ground. Whether it is a ground station or a user on the edge
So we made an investment, and procured a used (Gulfstream III) in the aircraft market with partners that we worked with in industry, We constructed a first set of sensors, and perhaps more importantly, we put on the aircraft a hardware and a software infrastructure that allowed those sensors over time to be plugged and played — that is, we could configure the hardback of the aircraft and the software infrastructure of it, the ability to take a sensor from various suppliers, whether it be one of our own or from a supplier in industry that was wanting to partner with us, and put it onboard the aircraft, and do that very very quickly.
So the value proposition that we’re delivering to the customer is that they could, say, if I wanted to investigate the ability to take a sigint feed and cross queue it with a FLIR, how would I go about doing that, and where are some of the latencies involved with doing so, etc. So that’s what we went off and did. And the team did an outstanding job in not just accepting the aircraft delivery, but also integrating the sensors, and getting that done in less than 11 months. And so we had our first flight a couple of months ago, and then John Beck was also out there at the C4ISR On-The-Move (exercise) which was the first operational use of that system — operational in that it was in support of a customer event, that they hold every year up in Lakehurst, New Jersey and up by Ft. Dix, where they investigate a lot of the advanced technologies that allow for FCS brigade combat teams, and war fighters, soldiers at the edge, to use equipment that’s emerging, and equipment that’s existing, to look at how do their CONOPS change, and what’s the operational affect of having some of these capabilities inserted into the loop. So we flew out there, and I’ll let John talk a little bit more about some of the specifics of that, but about two weeks after we went live for our first flight, we were up at Ft. Dix and off of Lakehurst flying in support of the C4ISR On-the-Move experiment for the Army.
SG: Let’s talk a little bit about the exercise, and then I wanted to talk with you about where you see it going from there in terms of what the Army’s interests are in terms of that capability to aggregate ISR data and push it down to a ground station in a coordinated way.
John Beck: I was up there at the experiment at Dix and Lakehurst — it was about a month ago this week that we were up there, we had 4 days of mission flights. And it was a very successful exercise for us. We had had the system approximately two to three weeks by that point, so as a first event right out of the door, we were very happy with it. Like Jim said, we worked a lot of the multi. And so in this case, because of the exercise and the threat environment they were portraying on the ground, we worked a lot of communications intelligence, comint, cueing our electro optical onboard sensors to get a real targetable location very rapidly from an initial comint fix, or a direction-finding location.
That worked very successfully in a number of different flight regimes. WE also had a lot of success interacting with the Army ground processing architecture, their Distributed Common Ground System-Army (DCGS-A). We had both a … a prime area where the interaction was successful is we did what they call federating distributed common ground system integration backbone, or DIB. So we had a DIB operational on the aircraft, we had a ground station for AML with a DIB operating, and the Army inside of the ground area there at Lakehurst had another DIB working. And we were able to federate all those.
So you hear about publish and subscribe, and query, and chat — we were able to work all those common base functions in DCGS integrated into the aircraft into that environment. About 3 weeks of acceptance of the aircraft, we were very, very satisfied with that initial effort. I would say also that we were also very satisfied with the overall system, both its flight characteristics and its mission characteristics, that it executed both normal flight operations — the pilots were impressed with the handling and the performance of the aircraft right out of the modification process out in California, and also the mission system was performing very well for a first time operational use. Finally, we also interacted with other airborne system via the ground stations at Lakehurst that were part of what was called by the Army the Persistent Surveillance Testbed event, that was being run by the intelligence and information warfare directorate (I2WD) at CERDEC. So that was an associated event that we were part of as part of the On-the-Move event. So overall, strong success out the door — we saw a lot of areas where we can build on and work to both reduce risk, and like Jim was saying, to explore things like workload balance, and tactics, techniques and procedures, of how you actually optimize the execution of a multi-int mission. So for us it was both a learning process and some extremely strong results for a first use of the system.
Jim Quinn: I’d like to reinforce one of John’s comments, because it’s very important to the enterprise level view of what we’re trying to do, and that is that seamless interface to DCGS-Army. A lot of dedicated ground stations that have been proliferated over time, a lot of the time it’s been done out of speed and necessity. But a lot of time it’s also driven by proprietary natures of the interfaces. And that’s absolutely the opposite of where we want to go with the AML. We want it to be an open system in terms of being able to accept other sensors and software to do that investigation and risk reduction that we’ve described before, in terms of the multi-Int aspect of the mission. But as important as that is the ability to seamlessly inject the information and the data that we collect off of that platform into the enterprise at large so it can find its way efficiently through the communication networks, and the bandwidth that’s available to the edge users. So John’s comment about that, right out of the box we were interfacing with DCGS-A is absolutely critical and important to the value that this brings to the customer.
Mark Wand: And not restricted to DCGS-A. DCGS in general, and even if you had a customer that wasn’t a DCGS node — a lot of the SOA based development of this thing would facilitate that same kind of data transport even if it wasn’t a DCGS node. What you see on the aircraft is what you see on the ground from a flight following standpoint. To be able to collaboratively work missions with any number of analysts on the ground, and a smaller number on the bird of course, that’s fairly fundamental to what we’re trying to accomplish.
Sean Gallagher: What kind of bandwidth do you have going from the aircraft down to the ground station?
Jim Quinn: We have a variant and flexible communications suite on board the air craft that can be modified based on the customer’s mission. And let me just give you a sense of what those links are. At this point we’re not discussing some of the technical specifications around the products generated, etc. But you can infer quite a bit. We have from a reach back perspective, we have satcom links and antennas that allow us to provide reach over extended ranges to a sanctuary, reach back to a sanctuary to either push or pull data in order to complete the mission. So we have the satcom that enables the aircraft for that, what I’ll call long-haul communication. Then within the AOR that it would operate in, we do have tactical communication data links that provide high bandwidth communications from the aircraft to the ground, and we also have the ability to put tactical radio nets that would allow us to push the data to selected ground users that have a complementary radio set on the ground. And that capability has been demonstrated — in fact the thread that allowed that what I’ll call one-to-many communications are things that we are actively working, and have demonstrated as part of the work up to the exercise.
Mark Wand: The comms and the sensors that are actively onboard are, you know, a representative suite. So, in all cases we haven’t gone to, we need the very best, let’s say, sigint sensor, the idea is to rapidly introduce new sensors for different types of applications.
Sean Gallagher: Have any of the things you’ve been working on here, do they have any impact on the Light armed Airborne Reconnaissance aircraft that you’re working with Beechcraft on?
Jim Quinn: I believe that the project you’re talking about is being worked out of Systems Integration Owego with Beechcraft. It’s a sister organization to us, and we stand ready to support the work that they’re doing, but for the moment our project is not affiliated with that one.
Sean Gallagher: I’ve been following a number of other ad-hoc networking technologies for air-to-ground communications — Raytheon and L3 have been working on using synthetic aperture radar as a communications link. Have you had any conversations with Raytheon about sensors?
Mark Wand: I don’t believe we’ve had any conversations with Raytheon, but we have been working a lot with L3 Communications West. We’re looking at different sorts of air-to-air things, but haven’t discussed the SAR-based one.
Sean Gallagher: As far as feedback from the Army test goes, from the C4ISR On-The-Move exercise, have they, are they looking to do a joint development program with you at this point, or have any of the services expressed any interest in funding ongoing research?
Mark: Unfortunately, we could discuss it as follow-on, but we haven’t talked to those customers about mentioning them specifically. We have been at, in fact the reason I’m late, I was just discussing taking into another service that is very anxious to see the bird. It was at a major US base two weeks ago that had over 30 people coming in to see what could be done, and we think there’s a lot of active interest. And it’s permeating, basically, all the major service branches as well as some other things. But then again, I really don’t have their permission to enter them.
Jim Quinn: We just have to be a little careful about getting a little too far in front of our headlights in terms of speaking about specific customer engagements. But what Mark said is absolutely true– as we show this to the various services, and the various program offices that are affiliated with the venues that we were talking about before up at C4ISR On-the-Move and other customer sets, both domestic and internationally, you can see that immediately the wheels start turning in their mind.
I’ve been to a couple of them with some of our senior customers, and the thought leadership that this platform provided has really allowed our customers to start elevating their thoughts, and the dialog across that customer to industry collaboration is really starting to pick up in almost an exponential way. They say, wow, to the extent that you have this platform, we didn’t realize you were this far, we could see how this would benefit us, not only in terms of analyzing concepts of operations, and tactics techniques and procedures for use, in terms of do you partition functions onboard the aircraft, simplify what has to be done in terms of exploitation and dissemination on the ground, but also then to improve readiness levels. As you know in our business, we focus quite a bit on the technology readiness level, the TRL level, of sensors and not only the standalone nature of those sensors but how do they work in the aggregate and in concert with other sensors.
So that you now have the mission suite TRL level that you could discuss with customers, and being accelerated, and obviously having the risk reduced. So as they think with us on the art of the possible, there’s a lot of dialog going about, “could you do this? What if we were able to explore this particular angle of not just mission, but technology risk reduction?” And we’re peeling down now through the layers of those discussions and seeing what our customers are interested in doing in the short term.
Sean: Did the impetus for this project come from customers, or did it come from internal research?
Mark: It’s sort of a combination of things. We’ve had a number of projects across a very diverse technology set. And a good example is with the DCGS DIB sort of things. We’re rather passionate about SOA-based transportable architectures. At the same time, we’ve got a number of airborne ISR programs, Senior Scout being a particular example. So looking at all these things we have together in conjunction with IRADs, you start to say, Gee, if we can pull all of this together in a package and get out of the kind of “this is my PowerPoint chart” kind of mode, it helps to begin to promote the art and the science of all this. You couple that with what we’re doing in the communications world with the WIN-T kinds of things, and the idea becomes to not say, Gee, we can all do these lightning bolt charts, but we can pull these together quickly and inexpensively and be able to show the art and science of this. A long answer to a simple question, I know…. #00:21:32.0#
Sean: In terms of future tests, do you have any exercises or capability demonstrations scheduled that you can mention?
Mark: We don’t have a particular exercise that we can point at. We’re looking at quite a number of them, and at the base that Jim was just at, there was a number of groups anxious to fly a number of sensors. But we don’t have anything we can talk about right now…it’s not for a lack of opportunities, though.