Coordination from the Cloud
A New Solution Fuses Intelligence and Operations
By George Jagels
Evermore capable, advanced, and expensive systems and software have proliferated in modern militaries. A November 2013 essay in Small Wars Journal by three Army officers, however, hit on an important paradox: Does it matter how capable a program is if it is too difficult to use? They were writing about the suite of Army Battle Command Systems, which have come under criticism from lawmakers and soldiers for their “atrocious user interface and poor, almost non-existent interoperability,” but the authors’ sentiment touches on a wider issue of managing information and the helpful but complicated array of systems on the battlefield.
In tactical operations centers currently in use by the military and intelligence agencies, decision makers must contend with both the mission at hand and the huge amount of information flowing into their systems. Screens are everywhere—one for Blue-force Tracking, another for unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) video feeds, a third with an intelligence feed, and yet another with living documents such as plans and significant activity reports. Communicating with those assets also requires separate programs.
Adding context to these streams of disparate data from intelligence and platforms is currently done in the commander’s head, which, while impressive, simply is not efficient. And communications with far-flung assets can be trying. In December 2013, Textron Systems’ Advanced Information Solutions business introduced a cloud-based system called iCommand in an effort to contextualize raw data and simplify asset management.
Chris Ellsworth, the technical project manager of the engineering group for iCommand, said that the software allows a commander entering a tactical operations center “to look at one screen to get oriented quickly.” The suite provides a common operating picture (COP), he added, but also enhances decision making through better information management and interaction with data and platforms.
Textron Systems saw a need for a better COP, and began developing iCommand in 2011. A prototype of the system found its way to a Special Operations Command (SOCOM) customer, who determined it addressed their needs and began working with the company to make the system operational. The 1.0 release is now available. Most iCommand customers are in special operations, and the company is doing some work with the services as well.
With tasking authority, a commander can also request relocation of an asset. “Essentially, iCommand is integration glue for an organization’s sensors, platforms, and data links,” Ellsworth added.
“A SOCOM-type customer, for example, uses three, four, or five different airborne ISR assets that all have different communications systems,” said Harvey Davis, program director for iCommand. “Our software allows you to bring in one system to view the information.” With tasking authority, a commander can also request relocation of an asset. “Essentially, iCommand is integration glue for an organization’s sensors, platforms, and data links,” Ellsworth added.
How iCommand appears to the user is not revolutionary nor is it automated. If, for example, a tracking device is planted on a vehicle, instead of cross referencing documents for a serial number and intelligence related to it, the software allows a user to associate the tracking device with the tracked system using a representative icon—all other relevant information can be grafted onto that data. This way a user clicks on one place to gain a complete picture of events.
“All of the data in iCommand is managed,” Ellsworth said. “The COP manager controls all aspects of the data going down through the cloud. He adds the context to the raw data.”
Assets involved in an operation are also linked through the system. Decision makers can see what UAVs are available, what their payload is, and how long they can stay on target. The software also allows access to live video feeds and map tracking. Operators may also isolate certain portions of the video and attach it to map points, what Ellsworth calls a “bread crumb.” Forty-eight hours-worth of video and location information can be stored in the current configuration.
With up to fifty clients able to log in, one group can be working on intel reports, for example, and an operational commander examining other intel or following a video feed can see those reports coming in in real time.
Ellsworth and Davis stressed that iCommand is “more than a COP.” Specifically, the software offers unified command and control capabilities over disparate manned and unmanned assets—without new hardware—for operations center users. On the map-based display showing all available aircraft, a user may select and task a UAV through an action all computer and tablet users know how to do: drag and drop.
“You might have a whole variety of aircraft at your command, and today you have to switch between many different tools to interface with them,” Ellsworth explained. “People are ‘fat fingering’ coordinates to try to manage their assets. iCommand brings that all into one environment and you can manage them [in an identical manner].”
In this way, an iCommand server becomes a message router and translator for both specific tasks and the commander’s intent. Ellsworth explained that when a user tasks an asset, he or she fills in a form, submits it, and the software’s server figures out what network that platform is on, what tactical message format it speaks, and then forwards that message on. If the operator accepts the directive in the message, the task is directly loaded to the aircraft’s payload. On a broader level, a commander can seamlessly communicate to a UAV operator that he wants a certain building monitored or truck followed. This does not require the services to change their procedures, but might represent an opportunity to streamline them.
On the battlefield, individual soldiers can access subsets of data with Android cell phones and tablets. Textron Systems has developed its own apps as well as worked with others to move iCommand to the field. Though Davis would not specify whom, he said that foreign militaries were interested in the product, which would require some modification for export.
Davis mentioned that one customer would like to use iCommand to coordinate nation-wide training exercises. To improve the exercise, simulated enemies, he said, “would show up in iCommand as a real opposing force, which presents [tangible scenarios] to the trainees.” Third-party off-the-shelf software is available for this task, and Davis said it could be integrated rather easily.
Start Up Budgets
Because the software connects different data feeds and equipment, iCommand requires very little new hardware; it can run on small battery-operated servers as well as large virtualized data centers, depending on how much information needs to be processed. By using existing customer infrastructure and assuming data feed compatibility, deployment of a “complete solution”—installing a server, pulling in data feeds, and setting up client accounts—takes only a couple hours, according to Ellsworth.
Servers can be positioned at different echelons, while the distributed cloud assures that those servers can sync their data. Training on the system is equally brief, Davis said. Clients can use a touch screen or keyboard and mouse, and the interface is very intuitive, especially for younger users. A three-day course would suffice to train a proficient COP manager. “The biggest thing managers have to learn is where they can get data from,” Davis noted. “A lot of times people don’t know that X feed is coming out of Y IP address.”
The base cost of one server with 20 clients and first year’s maintenance is about $200,000. Additional ten-client packs up to the maximum of fifty clients per server are about $20,000 apiece. “The other piece to this, however, is that most customers will need some field support engineering to establish their feeds, and a unique type of feed also requires software integration,” Davis said.
Top photo caption: iCommand is a cloud-based system that contextualizes raw data and simplifies asset management. The software can display maps, intelligence information, and video simultaneously while operators use a touch screen to navigate. (Textron)
This article was originally published in the Spring 2014 issue of Unmanned Tech Solutions.