Military Embedded Systems

ISR as a Service: Providing users with affordable surveillance and reconnaissance


January 29, 2014

Robert Smith

Lockheed Martin

As the type and number of military and national security threats increase, so does the sophistication and capabilities of Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) systems needed to address those threats. The problem, however, is that developing and operating advanced ISR systems is costly, and in many cases a user does not have the time, resources, acquisition processes, or technological maturity to make an ISR procurement practical.

One of the many challenging realities of today’s evolving landscape of threats is that nations, alliances, and organizations with great need for sophisticated ISR capabilities often find it difficult to develop, field, and operate those capabilities. Perhaps they lack the budget resources to procure an ISR platform or have no acquisition group available to efficiently procure such a sophisticated system. They may not have a mature ISR organization to operate the collection system, or the luxury of time to wait for the implementation of a system. For these entities, the answer lies in ISR as a Service, or ISRaaS. By procuring the specific capabilities it needs to fulfill specific mission objectives – whether they are military, homeland defense, or even disaster relief and humanitarian assistance – this type of customer can rapidly fill the gaps in its ISR capabilities according to its situational requirements.


Figure 1: In Lockheed Martin’s palletized Dragon Shield configuration – for users who need to perform multiple missions such as airlift and ISR – the ISR sensor and processing systems are built onto pallets or trailer-like containers that can be rolled on and off aircraft.

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This approach to solving a user’s ISR limitations brings its own set of challenges. Because of the high variability of each user’s circumstances, each solution must be customized and configured to align with a unique combination of a user’s resources, organizational maturity, mission requirements, and potential export restrictions. This need for customization might, in theory, appear to undermine one of the fundamental benefits of the service model, which is the cost effectiveness realized from standardization and reuse. In practice, however, the challenges can be overcome through a modular hardware and software architecture that supports highly adaptable technology solutions combined with technical and operational expertise.

Defining the ISR user’s need – and solution

The first phase in a successful ISRaaS implementation is fully defining and understanding the ISR user’s problem set. This approach has some of the characteristics of a commodity, in that it seeks to offer highly capable yet cost-effective solutions by applying standardized components to a task or set of tasks. Other features, however, are more characteristic of a development program, in that the components often require a high degree of customization and, therefore, close attention to mission definition and systems integration.

It is imperative that an ISRaaS provider focuses on helping each user determine the precise nature of the capabilities that address the mission, fit their available budget, and satisfy their overall ISR goals. Take, for example, a NATO member with a need for expeditionary ISR capabilities. This user has an existing ISR infrastructure and skilled operators and analysts, but its procurement budget is insufficient to acquire a new platform. In this case, they may be best served by a service-oriented solution that provides a multi-intelligence, contractor-owned airborne ISR platform and ground processing systems. The aircraft is piloted by the contractor, but the onboard mission system, ground system, and data are controlled entirely by the ISR user. If and when they are ready to purchase the capability, the user’s operational experience will have greatly influenced the final requirement set, and thus reduced any procurement risks.

On the other end of the scale, in the simplest form of ISRaaS, a user may go with a contractor-owned, contractor-operated capability where the data gathered by airborne sensors – perhaps small aircraft or even an aerostat – is passed directly to the user via live data feeds and may be recorded for later processing. With the contractor in full control of sensor cueing and data gathering, this arrangement relies on close communication to identify the user’s collection requirements.

In a third category, the ISR user may have a need for advanced ISR capabilities and a willingness to purchase a platform, but no desire to develop an infrastructure of analysts and processing capabilities. In this case, they may choose an ISRaaS solution that covers only the processing, exploitation, and dissemination portion of the ISR capability.

ISRaaS platforms can come in all shapes and sizes to fit user needs. Maintaining synergies with existing sovereign assets can eliminate infrastructure changes; evaluating a new philosophy by changing asset type (such as an aerostat) can help develop techniques and training for a potential future procurement; and utilizing a roll-on, roll-off containerized ISR suite carried by an existing multipurpose airlifter – as seen in Lockheed Martin’s Dragon Shield in Figure 1 – can enhance the value of an existing platform and avoid the cost of an additional aircraft.

Interfacing with a user’s C2 and ISR enterprise

When the problem set and best-value solution are determined, the next challenge is implementing the interfaces and data-format compliance between the ISR system and the customer’s network or networks. Nations, alliances, and organizations are understandably protective of their data-network security, yet ingesting ISR data requires exposing a number of interfaces to those networks. The first steps to making that happen include designing the ISRaaS-enabled architecture with a minimum of unique interfaces, and ensuring standardization of the data that will be transferred across those controlled interfaces.

Applying the appropriate data adapters requires very little development in most cases, especially for systems that are fully compliant with published standards. Adding to the challenge, however, can be the many available types of sensors, data streams, and customer processing systems. Depending on the user, the data feeds may include standard- and high-definition video, still images, signals intelligence (SIGINT), and others. Data may be collected from a number of sources, including electro-optical and infrared imagery, synthetic aperture radar, and Moving Target Indicators (MTI) for ground, air, maritime, and dismounted targets.

All of the various sensor outputs can be recorded as well as streamed from the platform to the ground system through a data link. Additionally, if sensor outputs are to be ingested by the end-user for further exploitation, they must be adapted to ensure compatibility in that environment. This could be as straightforward as providing standard-definition video to which a desktop user can subscribe and display in a browser, or it could take more complex forms if the data from all intelligence domains is to be ingested and processed.

Modern system design, which collects metadata associated with all aspects of the system, is a great advantage, as compliant metadata formats are required to facilitate content discovery queries. A sophisticated ISRaaS solution enables operators, whether they’re sitting in a mobile ground station or in an aircraft, to perform federated queries across metadata catalogs for all intelligence domains and locations. Recent developments are greatly improving the ease with which varied intelligence products can be integrated, queried, and displayed.


Figure 2: Dragon Dome links ISR, air operations, and missile defense systems at the battle-management level, enabling users to work together in a shared environment to optimize defense operations.

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Another consideration is the sharing of data with coalition forces. NATO members, for example, adhere to a range of standardization agreements that define the way video and metadata is encoded over a network. Properly encoded data can be shared through a coalition shared database. An ISRaaS user could, for instance, capture still imagery from a streaming feed and post it for coalition partners using NATO Secondary Imagery Format without additional processing. NATO customers are then able to engage in a higher level of data sharing and interoperability with systems that participate in NATO’s Joint ISR planning and operations as demonstrated in Unified Vision exercises. It is critical to remember, however, that when the platform is integrated with national, coalition, or alliance elements, designing how data flows throughout the system is a key early task.

Future of ISRaaS

Clearly, the need for ISR capabilities continues to grow around the world as entities of all kinds seek to protect their borders, assets, and population. When acquisition cost, timeline, or technical expertise is a limiting factor for a user, ISRaaS is often a viable alternative. It enables the rapid deployment of intelligence capabilities, using a range of deployment models tailored to each user’s circumstances, providing superior value for money and critical operational effectiveness for them.


Figure 3: A flying laboratory, the AML – also known as Dragon Star – is a used business jet that Lockheed Martin engineers modified into a flying test bed for testing and fielding C4ISR capabilities. The Dragon Star configuration addresses requirements for midrange, multi-intelligence platforms such as the Gulfstream III, Havilland D-8, or Beechcraft B350, all of which can be equipped with a variety of sensor and communications systems.

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Lockheed Martin is providing ISRaaS systems to a number of users via its “Dragon” family of ISR configurations that are used for various missions. The Dragon Dome, as seen in Figure 2, links ISR, air operations, and missile defense; while the Dragon Star flying laboratory (see Figure 3) serves as an airborne test bed for C4ISR capabilities.

Robert Smith is vice president of C4ISR Systems for Lockheed Martin Information Systems & Global Solutions. He leads a comprehensive portfolio of Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) programs. In this capacity, he is responsible for more than 100 programs that provide services and capabilities for all branches of the U.S. military, various national agencies, and numerous international customers. Smith received a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Maryland, a master’s degree in business administration from Johns Hopkins University, and a doctoral degree in chemical engineering from Auburn University.

Lockheed Martin Information Systems & Global Solutions 301-897-6230


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