Military Embedded Systems

Five ways open source middleware can impact unmanned systems


February 12, 2015

Matthew Zager

Red Hat

Traditionally thought of as intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR), or kinetic action platforms, unmanned systems are now filling roles such as command and control communications, meteorological survey, and resupply, and explosive ordnance disposal platforms. Historically, these platforms have been developed and fielded as standalone systems built by different vendors with unique and often proprietary payloads, control mechanisms and data formats. But this process has created limitations on interoperability and increased costs, leading the DoD to look at other, more viable options, including commercially supported open source middleware.

Open source middleware is built to work with any technology framework and is often sold via subscription, making it more attractive than “closed” software. It’s an ideal option for budget-conscious agencies working with legacy technology -- and building unmanned systems.

Here are five ways open source middleware can impact unmanned systems efforts:

Mission planning/tasking
Prior to deploying unmanned systems as part of a mission package, planning details for the assets must be conducted, including routes, amount of fuel required, necessary payload, and more. Mission planners collaboratively perform this work using applications hosted on enterprise application middleware platforms. Commercially supported versions of open source projects such as Wildfly and Apache Tomcat are comprised of a modular services-driven set of components with features such as web services, transactions, security, messaging, and others. Low memory footprint and fast start-up times enable them to be deployed in traditional on-premise or cloud-ready Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) hosting environments such as OpenShift Origin, enabling commanders to achieve their vision of globally distributed mission planning.

Platform & payload control
Traditionally, operations are conducted by joint forces with unmanned assets employed from multiple services, each with their own associated ground control station. This is inefficient; and while there are common control station efforts working on the definition of a common data model and control services, unmanned systems that cannot or do not implement these standards need to have their data formats and control commands mediated.

Enterprise Service Bus (ESB) technologies are designed to perform these functions with built-in protocol connectors, data translators, and message routers. Historically, proprietary ESBs were too heavyweight and expensive, making their use in tactical deployments prohibitive. Commercially supported open source projects like Apache Karaf, Camel, and ActiveMQ offer these features in a lightweight form factor at a fraction of the cost. By leveraging these technologies, a common control message can be mediated and routed to an unmanned system in it’s native format so a common control station can be used without changes to the unmanned platform.

On-board processing
Advancements in hardware technology are greatly increasing the computing capacity of unmanned systems. Developers can capitalize on this in a number of areas, including through automated decision support software. The Drools project, a lightweight, embeddable rules processing engine, coupled with a fast, in-memory data store such as Infinispan, delivers a high performance foundation for C2ISR capabilities on-board, thus conserving limited bandwidth while accelerating decision processes.

Platform to control center information exchange
Many unmanned systems perform some level of data collection that needs to be transmitted to command centers in support of operations. To avoid the same interoperability issues experienced with dissimilar ground stations, this data exchange should be implemented using an open standard such as the Advanced Message Queuing Protocol (AMQP). AMQP defines a common wire-level message exchange implemented by multiple commercial and open source messaging platforms such as Apache Qpid, ultimately providing choice of vendors, minimizing lock-in and abandonment, and lowering costs.

Information dissemination and exploitation
For unmanned systems whose mission is ISR, data collection is just the beginning. The data collected, whether it is imagery, video, signals, or METOC readings, must be disseminated and analyzed by experts or expert systems in support of mission objectives.

Middleware ESB and messaging technologies can automate dissemination through routing and transformation of data, while business process management (BPM) technologies enable the development and coordinated execution of business processes using the Business Process Model & Notation (BPMN) 2.0 standard. BPM codifies complex exploitation workflows including human-in-the-loop activities in a standard that helps bridge the analyst and developer viewpoints. BPM platforms that adhere to standards including commercially supported versions of open source alternatives such as jBPM offer choice and deliver lower costs.

Unmanned systems programs have been too closed and inflexible for too long. Open source middleware can change that by delivering flexibility, cost savings, and the ability to adapt unmanned systems programs in new and exciting ways. If building unmanned systems is one of your primary focuses, you should consider implementing open source middleware to help accomplish your mission.


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