Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Robots at NEL

The Navy has been on Point Loma for more than a century. The San Diego Historical Society notes how that Naval Radio Station Point Loma dates to May 1906. During World War II, University of California Division of War Research conducted sonar research out on the point.

[Building 33]In 1945, the Naval Electronics Laboratory was founded on Point Loma. By 1954, as the photo archive demonstrates, Building 33 (right) was already the central “topside” building. NEL was renamed to NELC in 1968, which is what it was called when I first visited the lab’s Building 33 in 1975 as a high school student attending the citywide physics contest.

NELC remained up at the end of the point through 1977, when it disappeared once and for all. (Actually, the buildings, missions and people remained, but it became NOSC in 1977 and SPAWAR Systems Center - San Diego in 1997). For decades, NELC (and NOSC) were big on C3 (command, control, communications). But today the buzzphrase is C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computer, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance).

Tuesday I went back to Building 33 for the first time in more than 20 years, for the SDTC Military SIG event “Rise of the Machines 2: A Field Trip to the Center of Excellence for Small Robots”. The program focused on the robotics research being done by the Navy and the DoD’s Joint Robotics Program.

In contrast to the Terminator 3 movie evoked by the program title, the Navy speakers emphasized the ongoing human control of the various aerial, land, sea surface and underwater robots. Still, one of the major advancements is to have robots go to a location (or patrol a pattern) without direct human interaction, to improve the labor efficiency so that one driver can manage more than one UAV/AUV. (For robots doing IED disposal, it appears that the robot occupies the attention of at least one operator).

One interesting thing is that the Navy (and the rest of DoD) are using some off-the-shelf commercial platforms for some missions. Some of the land-based robots are based on iRobot products (makers of the Roomba). The mine searching robot (with side-scanning sonar) came from Hyroid — a spinoff of MIT’s Woods Hole Oceanographic Instutite — which makes the Remus AUV that can be yours for only $250K or so.

The computing issues were also in many ways similar. The Navy is putting existing legacy apps into XML wrappers, so that a SOA will allow users to access data from a wide range of sources. No more word-of-mouth (or piece-of-paper) relaying results between different screens.

The communication problems, however, seem very different. Unmanned vehicles at the fringes of a carrier battle group (or a Littoral Combat Ship) go in and out of range of the combat IP network. Once they come in range, they need to authenticate and upload data quickly (before they leave again) rather than spend a few minutes rebuilding perfect routing tables as a commercial product does.

The Navy also faces unique reliability concerns. One speaker noted that the Navy needs to learn from the ad hoc denial of service attack mounted by Russian hackers against Estonia that shut down its Internet access for days, causing considerable economic damage. The attacks should be theoretically impossible if the military ships are not connected to the public Internet, but then again how do sailors get e-mail from back home?

The creation of MilSIG and integration of CommNexus with local Navy research and contractors is being led by SDTC director Vice Admiral Walter R. Davis, USN (Ret). Davis is a former F-4 and F-14 pilot who became a commander of a carrier and then a carrier battle group. It appears he ended his career as the head of the Navy’s communications networks in the office of the Chief of Naval Operations (N6), which seems a fitting position for someone trying to bring the Navy’s communications concerns before the San Diego telecom industry.

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