Processing Goes Portable

October 2010
By Maryann Lawlor, SIGNAL Magazine
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Cmdr. Donald Lee, USN (r), and other Empire Challenge 2010 participants use the Base Expeditionary Targeting and Surveillance System–Combined to search for suspicious activity on the range during Empire Challenge 2010. The annual intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance demonstration examines emerging capabilities.

System on a chip offers one solution to bandwidth constraints.

Intelligence analysts are drowning in data, so companies are working to develop life-saving solutions in the areas of processing, compression and visualization. Years of developing titanic numbers of sensors have resulted in an ocean of data that harbors only a few lifeboats. Companies that succeed in these endeavors not only will enhance homeland security but also will reap the benefit of financial windfalls. In addition to having search agents that would help analysts uncover truly useful information, the intelligence community would benefit from new ways to store and move petabytes of data.

Christopher B. Jackson, deputy chief, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) integration division, Joint Intelligence Operations Center (JIOC), U.S. Joint Forces Command, (JFCOM), Norfolk, Virginia, explains that the technology challenges for the intelligence community can be broken down into several areas. He says that, viewing intelligence as a cycle of tasking, collection, processing, exploitation, dissemination and finally analysis, it has become evident that the years spent developing many collection devices have resulted in a target-rich environment. Unfortunately, the amount of data these growing numbers of sensors now collect has become unruly, Jackson offers.

In the area of processing, exploitation and dissemination (PED), the challenge is to develop a way to turn processed data into information and then get it to the analyst. This problem is tied not only to processing speed but also to data management. “We can collect a lot of intelligence, but where are the gold nuggets?” Jackson inquires. Unless these nuggets can be identified, they are useless to commanders and individual warfighters, he points out.

A second challenge caused by overwhelming amounts of intelligence data involves the bandwidth required to deliver and share it. “You can collect more than you can move around. At a certain point, bandwidth is saturated, and things start dropping off the table,” Jackson relates. What is needed is the ability to sift through the information using either rule sets, smart agents or some other approach to identify and disseminate the important information so that it can move to the top of the queue quickly and improve the decision-making process.

A third challenge involves the analysis piece, an area in which improved visualization technologies can assist. Because ISR sensors gather a variety of types of intelligence, this data must be correlated and displayed so that analysts can identify both pockets of information and the relationship between these pockets. Data must be rectified for both geographic locations and time periods so that connections between pieces of data can be ascertained quickly, then provided to commanders at nearly the speed of light.

One additional requirement is the ability to direct sensor processing dynamically so that when needs change, the data the sensors are sending is what is needed at the time. This would require that more than one rule set be put into place so that, as mission requirements change, commanders can access different information from the same sensors, Jackson shares.

These challenges are magnified by the desire and need for cross-domain sharing. In operations that involve coalition partners, it is imperative that troops from different nations  share information. Jackson admits that because his passion is being a collections specialist, he would like to blacken the skies with unmanned aerial vehicles and other platforms so that all available clues could be gathered. Admitting that this is not practical or possible, he says one alternative is to rely on material knowing that other countries collect as well as share U.S. intelligence data with them.

Cross-domain sharing was one of several intelligence topics examined at Empire Challenge 2010 (EC10), an annual demonstration that focuses on placing information into warfighters’ hands. Jackson describes the event as comprising four legs. The first involves Defense Common Ground System (DCGS) integration. Although Jackson considers the DCGS to be a good news story because of how the intelligence sector has been able to use it, work in this area has been ongoing, he adds. One of the reasons for its success is that, as a program of record, it is more tightly integrated and it has evolved. In terms of intelligence access and retrieval, the capability has fostered joint command and control.

Just as critical to sharing information during missions is the second focus area. It involves both the DCGS and the Global Command and Control System, or GCCS, and determining how to enable the latter to pull information from the former to enhance battlefield awareness. According to Jackson, work on these two systems is occurring in parallel. As the U.S. Defense Department lead for joint forces capabilities, JFCOM is working toward providing commanders with data about both friendly and enemy troops in one common operational picture. Ideally, changes to this picture would occur in near real time to provide on-the-spot situational awareness.

The third area examined during EC10 concentrated on information assurance, a topic that must be a larger part of intelligence sharing, Jackson admits. As the services move forward, work will increase in this area, he adds.


Featuring full-motion video, TerraSight video exploitation systems and software provides situational awareness, targeting and image analysis forensics using full-motion video.

At the end of the day, the goal of EC10 was to determine how ISR data—no matter the source—could be delivered in a way that is timely, accurate and relevant to the warfighter. It must be moved quickly to the decision makers, whether they are the strategic commanders on the top or the platoon commanders who must decide whether to send a convoy north or south, Jackson explains. Although improvements have been made in this area, much work still is needed to put intelligence information into the hands of the operators, he adds.

Various companies have been developing technologies that address many of these challenges. For example, Sarnoff Corporation, Princeton, New Jersey, has developed a product called Acadia II. To some degree, this system-on-a-chip solves the problem of getting information into the hands of commanders quickly. It performs real-time contrast enhancement and stabilization, multisensor fusion and tracking on a single chip that is slightly larger than a postage stamp and smaller than a Saltine cracker.

According to Mike Piacentino, technical director of vision systems at Sarnoff, his company has developed one possible answer to this problem. Generally, sensors collect all available data and send it to the groundstation or one central location for processing and dissemination. Instead, Sarnoff’s Acadia II conducts what the company calls “smart processing.” The processing occurs on the chip. As a result, the amount of bandwidth needed to send information to commanders is reduced significantly.

For example, Piacentino says, the system on a chip can be preprogrammed to search automatically for specific “hot topics” that were designated by the commander on the platform sensor. “Or, the system on a chip can allow operators to say, ‘This is what I want. Send all this information to the ground,’ then they can see and choose what they want. This is a paradigm shift—for the soldier to see what’s over the next hill and for the commander to have a full picture,” he explains.

Another alternative to timely data processing is the company’s solution called Terrasight, which enables control processing from the base station where the commander can prioritize information and send different data to different people in different ways, he adds. This product enables sensor information from the air and ground to be incorporated into a common operational picture in real time. Currently, the U.S. Army has a servicewide license for the TerraSight product.

Piacentino emphasizes the value of products such as Acadia II in solving and addressing the bandwidth challenge. First, the size of the system allows for more sensors to be placed on a platform such as an unmanned aerial vehicle. Second, because processing takes place on a platform prior to downloading the information to the groundstation, the amount of information going through the pipes is only the data the commander requested.

The technology incorporated into Acadia II allows for multifunctional capabilities, he explains. It was originally designed for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency for use in its night-vision technology, which is incorporated into helmets, unmanned robots and rifle sights. It operates on 2 watts of power.

Jon Bradburn, senior director of business development at Sarnoff, points out that employing products such as Acadia II improves troops’ protection by providing “a sense of the environment and giving them the opportunity to buy time.”

Bradburn explains that when U.S. and NATO forces began operations in Afghanistan, the only equipment they had to work with was effective, but it required massive amounts of bandwidth. Although bandwidth was not an issue in individual areas, communicating between two sites could be extremely difficult. In addition, certain restrictions of bandwidth precluded sensor cross-queuing and target handoff, important activities in ongoing operations in Afghanistan.

Complicating this issue is the international flavor of the forces in theater. U.S. forces working alone can handle a shortage of bandwidth problem; however, in future operations in Afghanistan, a multinational force will be required. Consequently, the need to resolve the bandwidth issue will continue, Bradburn predicts. Industry can be instrumental in solving these problems, he adds.

Despite solutions such as Acadia II, Jackson relates that several traditional barriers still stand between ISR information gathering and putting the data directly into the hands of warfighters. Although these barriers have come down significantly in the past few years, work continues. While some of the issues are technical, others involve policy, doctrine and agreements among the parties involved, Jackson notes.

Focusing on these areas was another part of EC10. During the demonstration, the command and control structure included Finnish officers serving in an analog environment similar to that of the International Security Assistance Force structure in Afghanistan. In addition, ISR information was being shared among the “Five Eyes” partners—Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United States and the United Kingdom—and the event examined how to share information with different allies as well, he adds.

Once the technical aspects of this communications issue can be resolved to the satisfaction of the technical and concept developers, the information will be passed on to those in charge of developing policies, who will determine the best way to ensure that information can be shared with NATO countries as well as with other coalition partners.

Although Jackson has not had the opportunity to review and evaluate Acadia II, he points out that all technologies must follow the laws of physics. Many different technologies have been proposed to address the issue of limited bandwidth. However, all of them must be evaluated so that the wheat can be separated from the chaff.

This said, Jackson pointed out that another important area to support ISR sharing is visualization. The problem is not only that data must be processed but also that once it is provided in a common operational picture, petabytes of data must be narrowed down to the fertile ground that needs to be explored further, he explains. “How do you put this in a way they [commanders and analysts] can absorb it in the limited time they have?” Jackson asks.

One additional challenge is to be able to change the focus of data-gathering sensors in order to support different missions. “You have to keep in mind that mission sets change not only day to day or hour to hour, but sometimes minute to minute—that’s a tough challenge,” he explains.

Jackson says that JFCOM’s focus has been on collection of intelligence data. However, the new focus has become what those in industry would consider the back-office systems. “Data management and movement have become a neck of the bottle. How tight that neck is, I don’t think we even fully yet appreciate,” he says.

U.S. Joint Forces Command/Joint Intelligence Operations Center:
Empire Challenge 2010:
Sarnoff Corporation:
Acadia II:


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