Tech refresh brings HD video to Aegis

Consoles will have substantially more room to display C4ISR and weapons system data

When the Aegis combat system was deployed on USS Ticonderoga in 1982, its display technology was state of the art and almost entirely based on hardware and software created specifically for that job. But today, the latest generations of Navy data display systems are being built mostly from commercial hardware and increasingly with free and open-source software.

Now, the advances in commercial technology for high-definition digital video are making their way into Aegis. In April, General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems successfully completed the Navy's critical design review of its Common Display System (CDS) consoles, which will be deployed as part of the Aegis system aboard the new DDG-1000 Zumwalt-class destroyer and as part of the Navy's fleetwide Aegis modernization program.

CDS will include a high-definition video display based on the Digital Visual Interface. It will give sailors substantially more display space to track data related to command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and weapons systems.

"By applying our open-architecture framework to the Common Display System, we are delivering to the Navy a low-risk, flexible design with proven multilevel security functions and the ability to rapidly insert new capabilities," said Mike Tweed-Kent, vice president and general manager of integrated combat systems at General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems. The company planned to start delivering CDS components this summer.

Technology insertion

The Navy will install CDS aboard ships as part of the Advanced Capability Build (ACB) 12 technology program. Lockheed Martin, which manages the Aegis program for the Navy, will install CDS displays as government-furnished equipment under that program and is performing the integration work, said Richard Calabrese, director of maritime systems and sensors at Lockheed Martin Mission Systems.

In some ways, integrating CDS into Aegis is relatively easy because it is based on commercial software — as is Lockheed Martin’s Q-70 display for Aegis, which is included in the Cruiser Modernization Program, and the Next Generation Workstation that the company is deploying on littoral combat ships. Both systems use standard RGB component video for their output.

“The hardware really has become a commodity,” Calabrese said. “I used to spend a lot of time in my job worrying about what the specific hardware interfaces were inside the console and what things had been selected or specified. As we've come to more of a commodities-based approach, I have to spend less and less time thinking about those things because they're somewhat mandated by the government that they want us to use [commercial] standards, but also it just makes good business sense for us to be using the products that are widely available on the marketplace. Their cost is driven down because of the market share they have.”

As a result, he said, the Aegis software development team can spend more time making sure that applications aren’t written to specific hardware and can support whatever new technology gets inserted into the data display environment without significant code changes.

The existing generation of Aegis display hardware is entirely based on commercial standards, Calabrese said.

“They're all using standard off-the-shelf computing environments,” he said. “Whether it's blade servers or Sun V480 servers, they're commercial, off-the-shelf processors, with COTS operating systems and middleware products. We're doing tech refreshes to try to stay current with the marketplace, so right now what I would consider the baseline is IBM blade servers running a Linux operating system.”

The Q-70, CDS and Next Generation Workstation all provide open slots in a blade server environment, Calabrese said. That allows new technology to be put into place rapidly.

The software suite that runs across those systems is built with a number of other commercially available, free and open-source software packages. The latter components used in the Aegis Display System include the Tao adaptive communication environment, an open-source object request broker based on the Corba architecture, and a number of other tools for graphical user interface and SQL data queries.

“Those types of packages allow us to introduce capability more efficiently and lower cost without the need to develop specialized tools,” Calabrese said. “In the past, we would have developed unique militarized software for the purpose of providing those services. But obviously as those services become more and more available on the open market, we take advantage of them.”

Human systems engineering

Commercial technology is also allowing Lockheed Martin and the Navy to consider emerging display approaches based on the high-definition TV format.

“As the technology evolves and we get presented with new display hardware — such as HDTV formats or, ultimately, things like 3-D displays, touch screens and different sorts of user interfaces we've experimented with, like [IBM’s] Spaceball [3-D mouse] — the focus really turns to the human systems engineering process, to see how you best take advantage of those growing capabilities to provide enhanced warfighting capabilities for the sailors at sea,” Calabrese said. “And so it becomes less of an issue of which specific widget was selected by the console vendor, and as long as it meets the overall requirements of the information, we want to present [it] to them.”

The video wall display concept is part of the plans for the ACB 12 upgrade to Aegis. The video wall “is a large screen display that allows for very flexible presentation of information to the sailors in the command space,” Calabrese said. It will take advantage of the same high-definition technology being used in CDS.

However, with its introduction of digital display technology, CDS creates some new engineering problems for Aegis software developers.

“As we step up to the CDS consoles and we adapt to the high-definition displays, there's a fair amount of human systems engineering that has to occur to figure out how to best take advantage of and utilize the space that you're given because you're being presented with a lot more pixels available to present information to the operators,” Calabrese said. “And if you just do a straight stick port of the applications we have today and put them on the HD display, you end up with the same problem you have on your television at home. Either you've got black bars on the side and you're not utilizing the full screen, or you're elongating your information and it's distorting the information that gets presented to the operator.”

As a result, Calabrese said, the Aegis software team is going through a fairly rigorous process to determine how to use the additional pixels.

“We’re [looking] for the best way to present information to the users and take advantage of the fact that we have additional screen surface, without just overwhelming the operators with more information for the sake of providing more information,” he said.

About the Author

Sean Gallagher is senior contributing editor for Defense Systems.

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