Military Embedded Systems

How data is fast becoming the U.S. Navy’s powerful secret weapon


March 17, 2023

Stephen Carlon

Accenture Federal Services

How data is fast becoming the U.S. Navy’s powerful secret weapon
U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Brandon Murphy.

In December 2022, as U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) wrapped up its three-week Digital Horizon training exercise to advance the use of unmanned technologies, the U.S. Navy marked the success of both a high-profile “hero” (artificial intelligence/AI) as well as a self-effacing, yet no less valuable “secret weapon” – data.

The U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) Task Force 59 was launched in 2021 to rapidly integrate unmanned systems and emerging technologies into maritime operations. During a high-profile training exercise at the end of 2022, the task force used artificial intelligence (AI) – its headline-grabbing “hero” – to detect potential threats from 15 different advanced systems, 10 of which were operating in the Middle East for the first time.

As NAVCENT tested and operated these unmanned technologies, specifically 12 unmanned surface vessels (USVs) and three unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), a more understated yet increasingly mission-critical element was at the heart of the mission’s success.

That secret weapon was data. But tapping the full potential of data in the waters of the Persian Gulf was no easy feat.

Reining in the bandwidth hog

USVs are a powerful force multiplier for the Navy: The ocean is vast, and USVs offer the Navy a low-cost means of situational awareness. Each USV continually pumps out streams of data, specifically 20 million pieces of data during the Digital Horizon event alone. Much of the information gleaned, such as location data, uses very little bandwidth.

On the other hand, video recorded by the USV cameras can unfortunately serve as an obstructive “bandwidth hog” while the equipment can be bulky. The challenge for the Navy during the exercise was how to acquire and transmit enormous quantities of data, video and ­otherwise, within such a bandwidth- and space-constrained environment.

The exercise called for a centralized data platform for storing and transferring data that maximized the use of available wireless network bandwidth while minimizing the need to integrate a spider­web of disparate systems.

A centralized data platform from analytics company Novetta called Platform for Integrated C3 and Responsive Defense was used to enable NAVCENT to acquire video in a reduced-bandwidth manner and disseminate it to three distinct systems – a data visualization platform, an AI vendor, and a data lake [a centralized way to store structured and unstructured information in disparate data sets together]. If any of those three systems had attempted to acquire the data individually instead of through this centralized platform, bandwidth issues at the high-stakes training exercise may have threatened mission success.

Standardizing communication

Naval vessels use standardized communication protocols like AIS [Automatic Identification System] to transmit positional and other data, which means that systems can talk directly to each other. However, at present, USVs operate largely in a standardless environment with respect to telemetry and other types of information. In preparing for Digital Horizon, one of NAVCENT’s major questions was how these various USV systems would communicate effectively with one another.

Typically, data-centralization platforms have defined a communication standard that all connected devices need to speak. But if the devices don’t speak that language, it is extremely difficult for traditional platforms to acquire the valuable data, thereby slowing down data processing. During Digital Horizon, the platform used meant that data didn’t need to be standardized for systems to be interoperable. Adapters interfacing directly with an individual vessel’s particular communication protocol translated messages to an internal common format, and then broadcast these messages to other systems so that disparate messages could be understood by all. This approach represented a significant paradigm flip. (Figure 1.)

[Figure 1 | A Marine Advanced Robotics WAM-V unmanned surface vessel operates and collects data in the Arabian Gulf during the Digital Horizon exercise in late November 2022. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Brandon Murphy.]

By using an open-architecture edge and cloud system that brought DevSecOps principles (which can be defined as the practice of integrating security testing at every stage of the software-development process) to nontraditional operational technologies, specifically Digital Horizon’s USV systems, the platform upended the conventional thinking about how sensors talk to each other. A mesh of standard, nonstandard, and legacy data was all ingested and standardized, a definite change in the way data was handled in the fast-paced simulated mission-critical environment.

Creating a “single pane of glass”

Another major priority at Digital Horizon was to centrally position data, fusing it together in one place so that Navy systems operators weren’t forced to continually shift their focus among multiple screens and adjust to disparate applications. It is not uncommon for naval operators to interface with multiple software packages and industry partners to operate a vessel, which sometimes can hamper the flexibility, agility, and speed of naval operations.

Consolidating onto one common operating picture was not a simple endeavor during the exercise: Data from 15 vessels, 40 video feeds, and nine sources of AIS made integration complex. NAVCENT was able to successfully leverage a web-enabled data visualization platform to display USV data onto a so-called single pane of glass, an approach that presents data from multiple sources in a unified display. The huge screen displayed a map of the unmanned systems, as well as a wealth of data including video feeds and surface detections, making USV command-and-control a seamless and successful endeavor. (Figure 2.)

[Figure 2 | The “single pane of glass” approach used by Task Force 59 during the Digital Horizon exercise. Image courtesy Accenture/Task Force 59.]

Ultimately, naval operators during the Digital Horizon exercise were able to directly control five different unmanned vehicles from a single user interface without any intervention from the USV industry partners. At scale, this capability significantly increases speed-to-mission for the vehicles by shortening communications paths and taking advantage of their autonomous navigation.

What’s next

Overall, naval operators at Digital Horizon were able to use data to help them better understand:

  • The position of the USVs, including information on latitude and longitude, heading, speed, etc.
  • The sensing capabilities of the vessels have, including live video feeds and automatic detections of what was seen in the videos.
  • Which vessels needed to be investigated by the Navy; in other words, if there were there any active vessels nearby transmitting their positions or radar contacts.

Task Force 59’s exercises at Digital Horizon weren’t only significant for advancing USV operations, but they also underscored a broader imperative – that the flexibility of data platforms to centralize and manage data will be at the heart of maintaining an agile, forward-looking Navy. (Figure 3.)

[Figure 3 | An Ocean Aero Triton unmanned surface vessel operates alongside U.S. Coast Guard fast response cutter USCGC Emlen Tunnell (WPC 1145) in the Arabian Gulf during the Digital Horizon exercise in November 2022. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Brandon Murphy.]

What’s more, as each branch of the U.S. military – Navy, Air Force, Army, Marine Corps, and Space Force – advances toward a stronger, more unified operational stance with the Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2), innovative and nimble approaches to data aggregation will be necessary to rapidly adopt and scale cutting-edge technologies, enable greater visibility, and ultimately stay ahead of adversaries.

Stephen Carlon is Accenture Federal Services’ National Security Portfolio Managing Director, C4ISR Lead. He was embedded with Digital Horizon in the Middle East. AFS was solely responsible for data integration for the 15 different types of unmanned systems participating in the exercise, 10 of which were operating with the 5th Fleet for the first time. He is responsible for the product development and deployment of Novetta Mission Analytics (NMA) and Ageon ISR/Geospera in support of critical mission systems for National Security and commercial customers in the U.S. and around the world. Mr. Carlon joined Novetta in 2013 as the Director for Special Products in Information Exploitation/Defense Intelligence, managing the development and delivery of Xift, Dataviser, and InSight across multiple clients. Prior to Novetta, Stephen was a Senior Program Manager of a proprietary web-based project portfolio management system at Métier, Ltd.; earlier in his career, he was the network administrator at the U.S. Embassy in Vienna, Austria and a Software Engineer at Electronic Data Systems. Stephen holds a B.S. in computer science, a minor in mathematics, and a concentration in business management from the University of Oklahoma. He is a certified Project Management Professional (PMP).

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