International Team Tackles Key Communications Issues

July 2007
By Henry S. Kenyon

The International Technology Alliance (ITA) in Network and Information Sciences is a joint effort by the United States and the United Kingdom to develop new technologies to enhance both nations’ network-centric warfare capabilities during coalition operations. The alliance seeks to develop new technologies that allow better coordination and information sharing between warfighters such as this Royal Air Force unmanned aerial vehicle operator and his American counterparts.
Group seeks to enhance information sharing during multinational missions.

A new trans-Atlantic partnership comprising interdisciplinary research teams is developing wireless and sensor technologies to support future multinational network-centric operations.

The International Technology Alliance (ITA) in Network and Information Sciences is an IBM-led consortium that is managed jointly by the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence (MOD) and the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL). Launched in August 2006, the consortium consists of commercial, government and academic laboratories and scientists working to solve fundamental problems encountered by coalition forces operating in network-centric environments. Other consortium members include The Boeing Company, Honeywell Aerospace Electronic Systems, the City University of New York, Pennsylvania State University, the University of Cambridge, Royal Holloway College, LogicaCMG and Roke Manor Research Limited.

According to Dinesh Verma, senior manager of networking technologies at IBM, Yorktown Heights, New York, the ITA brings together two groups of researchers from across the Atlantic to solve a variety of networking challenges collaboratively. He notes that when the program was founded, its goal was to leverage the many complementary skills of U.S. and British researchers. “People are trying to look at networking problems or the problems of the new generation of networking in wireless and mobile systems,” Verma observes.

These networking challenges include security protocols, network sensor domains and human factor usability concerns. Many issues within a research domain can be solved with input from other areas, but Verma notes that few programs attempt to leverage work from across disciplines. He cites the example of sensor processing, noting that sensors currently process information in ways that do not take network architectures into account. He explains that sensor processing difficulties can be overcome if researchers work with other scientists well versed in data routing and computer network topology. Combining these two areas of expertise permits the development of persistent sensors that can efficiently process data and disseminate information across a military network, Verma says.

The ITA originated because the U.S. and British governments believed that they did not have a proper science for facilitating coalition operations in network-centric warfare, Verma shares. The alliance’s administration has two parts: technical leadership and logistics. The technical leadership consists of program managers such as Verma who report to one consortium manager with the U.K. MOD and one manager with the ARL. The ITA’s four technical areas are directed by professionals from industry, academia, the MOD and the U.S. Defense Department.

David Watson, director of emerging technology, IBM U.K., Hursley, Hampshire, England, believes that the ITA benefits the United Kingdom for many of the same reasons that it benefits the United States: The consortium provides two sets of minds with slightly different experiences that create unique research results. “The issues that are faced by the U.K. and the U.S. military in terms of coalition operations are fundamentally the same. [The militaries] just start from different positions,” he says.

Watson observes that interoperating national systems need not be identical. “You’ve got to get disparate systems to talk to each other; it’s not about just one homogenous system or one system from one country. The whole point is to make sure you’re thinking about the fact that everything is going to be heterogeneous,” he says. This ability to make diverse systems intercommunicate is the major benefit that both nations’ research organizations receive from this partnership, he explains.

The program consists of 12 different projects covering areas such as wireless networking, security management, auto configuration of sensor networks and human factors issues. Verma notes that each contract for an individual project is treated as two parallel contracts for administrative purposes. IBM U.S. receives a set amount of funds from the ARL, and it distributes the funds and writes contracts with the various universities and member partners. He adds that a parallel structure governs contracts on the U.K. side, in which the MOD provides IBM U.K. with contract authority and IBM U.K. administers the disbursement of funds and purchase orders and reports this to the MOD. While these contracts are parallel for administrative purposes, technically the U.S. and U.K. teams perform all leadership activities jointly, he says.

Of the dozen key ITA projects, the first will focus on understanding wireless and sensor networks. It will seek to ascertain fundamental principles for sensor networks and to determine the carrying capacity for such systems and how they can be modeled.

The second study will explore system interoperability. Researchers will try to understand how wireless networks conduct routing and messaging with each other. They will study how to monitor and configure the networks in a coherent way even when two networks belong to two different domains, Verma explains.

Biologically inspired techniques for self-organizing networks will be part of a project that examines epidemiological routing to distribute information rapidly in wireless networks. Another aspect of this research will address conducting effective topologic control in wireless networks and how to manage that topology. Verma notes that swarming algorithms and programs modeled on the human circulatory system offer several advantages to wireless sensor networks, including reduced power consumption, enhanced duty cycling and more efficient event tracking and data processing.

Another area of research is policy-based security management. This is a tricky subject, Verma says. During coalition operations, a diverse group of participants must form a secure community to exchange and access data. This process is similar to two companies forming their own private virtual partnership. “Each of the groups has its own policies, and the mission leader has his own task to do,” Verma explains. Therefore, the mission leader will need to set policies to satisfy the requirements of both the U.S. and U.K. governments in such a way that does not hamper the mission, he continues. 

The fifth research effort examines lightweight security architectures for coalition systems. Applications such as public keys are too cumbersome for use in lightweight wireless mobile networks, yet identification and security validation are vital. Verma says that in coalition environments lacking pretrusted or prenegotiated authority with partner nations, processes must be developed that will involve minimal establishment of security parameters yet will allow sufficient security and flexibility without a centrally trusted infrastructure.

The sixth project addresses managing trust. Verma notes that groups operating in a secure environment do not always trust their partners. Warfighters receiving data from their fellow countrymen trust the information more than if it came from a foreign source. He explains that the challenge facing scientists is to develop methods to measure accurately the risk of sharing data in a coalition environment. Researchers will consider criteria for tasks such as determining the level of trust placed in an individual or nation and the circumstances in which sharing sensitive information can be considered a calculated risk.

Another project will examine the quality of information. Verma explains that information is collected from sensors but that their data may not be equally timely or trusted. Warfighters might look at information coming from a coalition partner differently than data coming from their own organization. Scientists are studying how to measure the reliability of information coming from a variety of sources and how to take into account the recipient’s familiarity with the data source, he says.

Researchers also are studying auto deployment and auto configuration of sensor networks. The challenge will be optimizing the entire information technology infrastructure to best support the task, Verma shares. The goal of this research is to move the configuring, managing, provisioning and deploying of sensor networks and wireless sensor infrastructure from a task that is conducted at the technology level to one performed at the mission level. “The people conducting the mission can say, ‘I want a certain operation done in this area, or I want an operation done in that area,’ and you want those high-level priorities to drive the deployment and layout in a real network,” he says.

The ninth project will focus on network complexity management in order to move from processing sensor data stream information coming across the network to high-level visualization and prediction. One concept that will be explored is the shift from sensing passively to tracking actively and analyzing specific objects. By observing how an object moves, the system can determine whether it is hostile. Another aspect of this work will examine the patterns of regularly occurring situations such as taking evasive action under specific circumstances. For example, instead of a radar screen showing two blips approaching each other, an intelligent system will alert the operator of an impending collision and suggest actions. Verma explains that his goal is to reduce the complexity of the data before it overloads human operators.

The remaining three projects focus on human factors. One study will investigate how people and especially organizations collaborate across subject areas. It will determine the best ways to collaborate between humans and with software agents. The second project is cultural analysis that will identify how the United States and the United Kingdom do things differently and what the mechanisms are to bridge the gap. The last study will examine using semantic technologies to assist in military planning.

Each of the 12 projects is subdivided into smaller efforts. Verma states that only some of the research activities can be undertaken at the beginning of the program. As time passes, studies are completed and the understanding of the science evolves, new programs will be defined and launched. Although the ITA’s research efforts are less than a year old, Verma notes that scientists already are seeing results. “We have new ways of analyzing networks that we were not able to do before as well as new ways of collecting information from sensors and processing it,” Verma says. He adds that ITA researchers have produced more than 50 publications based on their findings during the organization’s first eight months.

The trans-Atlantic government, corporate and academic collaborations have led to models that can analyze the properties of small mobile ad hoc networks. Verma explains that much of the existing work on ad hoc mobile networks defines them either as very large networks or as moving according to certain distributions. “We wanted to analyze tactical networks, a finite number of nodes moving along in patterns on highways—situations that you would encounter in practice.” He adds that there has been little previous research on tactical networks, but ITA scientists have developed techniques to analyze finite mobile networks.

Although many of the partner firms hope to move the technologies to a product, Watson explains that the alliance’s main goal is research. “The ITA program is deliberately about fundamental science,” he says. One of the points made early in the effort by scientists and the U.S. and U.K. governments was that the basic understanding of complex networks is not as deep as the ability to operate them implies.

The ITA’s long-term goal is to conduct research for at least five years, with a possible extension for an additional five years, Verma says. After the initial period, both nations will determine whether the program has provided enough value to renew the effort for another five years. He is sanguine about the program’s future. “Based on what I’m seeing, we are highly likely to be around for the next 10 years,” he asserts.

Web Resources
International Technology Alliance in Network and Information Sciences:
U.S. Army Research Laboratory:
United Kingdom Ministry of Defence:


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