Sensory overload: Military is dealing with a data deluge

Sensors provide invaluable information to the warfighter, but they produce an enormous amount of data.

“We don’t need any more sensors! We have enough sensors,” Army Brig. Gen. Thomas Cole complained to an audience of military and industry players at a recent AFCEA International gathering.

It was a rather unsettling statement from the program executive officer for intelligence, electronic warfare and sensors. And no doubt many in the audience would disagree with him on the grounds that forces in Iraq and Afghanistan need all the help they can get.

But Cole was making a point: Sensors do provide invaluable information to the warfighter, but they also produce an enormous amount of data. Before that data can make it to the tactical level, it has to be filtered and disseminated through layers of machinery and humans. The flood of data is threatening to breach the levees, Cole said. In this case, the levees are the troops who must process all that vital information needed on the ground.

Others have echoed Cole’s concern. “We’re going to find ourselves in the not-too-distant future swimming in sensors and drowning in data,” said Lt. Gen. David Deptula, Air Force deputy chief for intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillances (ISR), as reported by National Defense magazine.

No one is certain yet what the lifeline will be, but it will require innovative technology and enterprise-level incorporation of better data structure, experts agree.

Sensors are incredibly powerful tools that provide a thorough operational picture. They are mounted on everything from Defense Department-issued helmets, where they monitor for head trauma, to unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) drones that patrol the war zone across southwest Asia.

With sensors, “we can focus on the task at hand — [getting] a complete understanding of what’s going on on the battlefield, down to the lowest levels,” Cole said.

But the military has millions, if not billions, of sensors in place that provide all-seeing reports of the combat environment. That data is fed into various systems operated by Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps personnel who then push the information down the chain of command to the tactical level, where it’s then used to formulate plans and strategies for execution.

In the military, it’s called situational awareness; and almost anyone in a military uniform will tell you that you can’t have enough of it.

“I cannot see a situation where someone is going to say, ‘Hey, I can do with less of that,’ ” James Clapper, undersecretary of Defense for intelligence, said of the data emanating from military ISR assets, as reported by National Defense.

But the military is quickly reaching a point of information saturation. In the Air Force alone, UAVs churn out 39 video feeds, 24 hours a day — a figure that could jump to 3,000 feeds as airborne surveillance programs proliferate. That’s in addition to manned Air Force aircraft and the Army’s UAV surveillance programs.

Army Maj. Gen. Mark Bowman, director of architecture, operations, networks and space at the Office of the Army Chief Information Officer, said maximizing sensor capabilities requires the integration and correlation of data at the enterprise level. From there, events or pieces of information — no matter which service they come from — can trip a reaction all the way down the chain.

That integration of aggregated data, if properly harnessed, could have caught the Nigerian would-be bomber who boarded a Detroit-bound flight on Christmas Day — before he even got past the security checkpoint.

Maj. Gen. Bradley Heithold, commander of Air Force ISR, said automating the process is essential to managing the data flood, and he challenged industry to design smart technologies that enable machine-to-machine communications to sort data.

That kind of software might not yet exist, but the foundation is in place. According to the New York Times, Raytheon has designed a new $500 million computer system for the Air Force that will help sort through images and feeds coming from sensors and even provide some basic data tagging.

Heithold made it clear that manpower alone isn’t going to do the trick. “In DOD…it’s easier for me to get money than it is to get manpower," he said. "We’re going to have to use technology, smart systems that cipher through the intelligence.”

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