Wednesday, September 28, 2011
We have entered an age where two trends are running smack into each other in increasingly painful ways - the blending of personal and professional lives on our devices, and an era of highly public hacking. In the age of WikiLeaks, an age when government leaders' (and high profile political candidates') private communications and official correspondences have been hacked and exposed on front pages of Web sites, data security on mobile devices is increasingly crucial. At the same time, we've come to expect our mobile devices to be all things, professional and personal.
Do you carry more than one mobile device - phones, tablets, etc.? When we travel for business, many of us do. This may be partly for convenience, partly for security. And while corporate data security is deeply important - what about the security of sensitive government and military data? That's life and death. Do commanders want troops in the field checking Facebook or sending personal email on the same mobile devices they are using for sensitive operations. Not likely. So to insure data isolation between the persona persona and the IT-managed persona, you end up with two phones, two tablets, two laptops, etc.
Imagine that hardware bloat expanded across, say, a whole army. At the Embedded Systems Conference in Boston on Tuesday I chatted with Brad Jackson, a senior field applications engineer at Green Hills Software, about their Integrity Multivisor platform, for which they've just rolled out updates that add support for "the latest versions of Android and other mobile operating systems." Jackson describes the system as, "software separation as secure as hardware separation."
In the example we discussed, one might install two instances of the Android operating system on top of Green Hills' INTEGRITY Multivisor mobile hypervisor, which installs directly to the hardware. One of the Android installs is for the "sensitive network" with key management, crypto and authentication applications, the other is for the "quality-of-life" network, where you might email your kids and check Twitter - "multimedia, social and Internet apps."
Anyone whose work takes him away from home and family, even for short stretches of time like days or weeks, knows how important it is to be able to maintain that connection to home. This must be infinitely more true for people who must be away for months or even years. Mobile devices and the social tools they enable are powerful ways to stay connected. It's not just a convenience; but a vital way to stay connected. "Warfighters expect to be able to email their loved ones back home," Jackson told me. Business, government and military leaders seem to be conceding to this expectation.
For warfighters, eliminating the need for multiple devices in the field for secure and non-secure data has size, weight and power (SWaP) implications, as well as cost benefits.
For business travelers, it may someday mean fewer devices and cables in the laptop bag and a faster trip through airport security. And for politicians, maybe it means one less embarrassing picture, tweet or email message offered up for scandal, scorn and joke fodder for late night talk show hosts.
Ernesto Burden is the publisher of Military & Aerospace Electronics and Avionics Intelligence. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @ aero_ernesto.
Wednesday, September 21, 2011
It used to be that video game creators tried to emulate real life experiences. Remember Microsoft's Flight Simulator? It was about as complicated to fly those virtual planes as it is to fly real planes (I spent more time crashing my airliners than landing them as a kid), and that was the goal. But what happens when that paradigm gets flipped on its head - when the real life user interfaces model themselves on rapidly evolving video game standards? I had a first hand taste of this at a recent defense electronics shows I attended - and even got to take the joystick and learn just how easy robot-wranglin' can be at the surreal VR dawn of the 21st century.
If you've played a newer first-person-shooter style video game, you know how powerful the graphics engines are and how immersive the experience is. In a lineage descending from classics such as Doom on through the the most recent Call of Duty or Halo releases, first-person-shooter games have evolved into marvels of 3D graphics rendering, allowing for ultra smooth movement through incredibly detailed environments that draw the player in so well that experiences such as a fall or wild charge down a winding corridor generate actual physical sensations. At the touch a button on the computer keyboard or controller device, you can toggle visual perspectives and control not only forward, backward, left and right movement, but also left and right "strafing" movements, crouching, leaping and in some cases flying or swimming with perfect altitude and depth control.
So what does this embarrassment of riches in entertainment technology mean in aerospace and defense? Well for one thing, it means that the commercial game environment has had generations to explore not only virtual environments, but astoundingly intuitive user interface for control for navigating those environments.
Which brings me to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) show in Washington, DC, our Military & Aerospace Electronics Team attended last month, and back to Flight Simulator. I found as a kid - not being a pilot or someone inclined wanted to read a full length instruction manual just to play a game - the planes in Flight Simulator to be difficult to fly. At AUVSI, M&AE chief editor John Keller and I watched a small drone helicopter - the Hornet Micro UAS - demonstration. After the demonstration we visited with the helicopter's maker Adaptive Flight and we got to see how the vehicle was flown. Hint - you didn't need four hands and six feet to operate all the pedals and levers and sticks and whatnot. You used one joystick and a keyboard. The 12-year-old version of you could drop in from the past and fly this thing with about one minute of instruction, no manual required. You'd know exactly how to do it, because it worked just like a video game. In fact, that's pretty much what the UAV's maker says in the product literature: "Advanced flight control technology makes flying the Hornet as easy as navigating a video game with take-offs and landings at the push of a button."
A little bit later that day I was chatting with Andrew Borene at the Recon Robotics booth. Recon makes a tiny little robot called the Recon Scout IR. It's basically a cylinder about the size of a 2.5 lb dumbbell with rubbery wheels on either end and a couple of flexible antennas sticking out. The idea is you can lob this little guy up onto the roof of a building, say, and then drive it around reconnoitering. Andrew gave me one of the robots and let me throw it onto the roof of the booth, which was designed to look like a desert outpost. He then handed me the controller - once again a single joystick was all you needed to drive. The vehicle was designed to self-right and then get on with business, shooting video automatically and transmitting it back to a screen in the controller. Drive into a dark room on the roof? The camera automatically switches to an IR view. I drove a robot about this size in a video game a long time - James Bond Golden Eye - and I say with absolute conviction that the video game version was actually a bit harder to operate. That's how good these things are getting.
So while soldiers are using "serious" games for training and simulation from the cockpit to the battlefield (read this article by M&AE's Courtney Howard for a great overview of this), it's also clear that elements of these games are blurring the line between reality and virtual reality in the other direction as well. And it's fascinating to wonder what impact having grown up in the deeply immersive, super-detailed environments of contemporary video games will have on the engineers and developers of the future in terms of the direction from which they instinctively approach user interface challenges.
Ernesto Burden is the publisher of PennWell's Aerospace and Defense Media Group, which include Military & Aerospace Electronics, Avionics Intelligence, and Avionics Europe. Email him at email@example.com.
Thursday, September 15, 2011
Posted by John Keller
MUNICH Germany, 16 Sept. 2011. I've been in Europe on business this week, and had a chance to have dinner in the same historic beer hall in Munich Germany, where in February 1920 Adolf Hitler himself outlined a 25-point program of ideas that were to be the basis of what would become the Nazi party of Germany ...
... yes, THAT Nazi party, the one responsible for starting World War II when it sent German army troops across the border of Poland in September 1939 to conquer its first, but not last, European country on its way to dominating the continent in the mid-20th century.
But in 1920, the German Nazi party was just an idea, which took root in the beer halls of Munich. The place I visited this past Wednesday evening is the famous Hofbräuhaus, a gigantic place built in 1598 where generations have strained their elbows hoisting liter-sized beer mugs and enjoyed the sounds of Bavarian ooompah bands ... and at one time a charismatic speaker named Adolf Hitler.
The Munich beer halls of the day, like the Hofbräuhaus, which still survives, were the size of huge gymnasiums where thousands of people could gather and listen to political speeches. Hitler's 1920 speech at the Hofbräuhaus was only the first of many Nazi events that led to the failed Beer Hall Putsch, an attempted takeover of the German government by the Nazis in 1923.
German authorities foiled this attempt, and Hitler went to prison for eight months as a result. He used his prison time to write a book called Mein Kampf, and re-emerged in German politics soon after his release.
I think we know the rest of the story.
Sitting in the huge room on the second floor of the Hofbräuhaus where Hitler gave that important 1920 speech, I couldn't concentrate on the Bavarian dancers, brass band, and town banners adorning the hall. I kept thinking about red flags with black swastikas, and a room full of people giving the Nazi salute, and a frenzied speaker with a funny little mustache gesticulating up on the platform.
I kept thinking to myself, 'THIS is the room.' Well, as it turns out, it wasn't EXACTLY the room. Allied bombing raids during the Second World War destroyed much of Munich, including the second floor of the Hofbräuhaus. The historic beer hall was rebuilt after the war, along with many other damaged historic buildings. The plaque on the wall commemorating Hitler's speech was not replaced during the beer hall's refurbishment.
It's a curse being an armchair historian sometimes. I should have enjoyed the Hofbräuhaus dancers more than I did.
Tuesday, September 13, 2011
Posted by John Keller
LONDON, 13 Sept. 2011. I'm attending the monster Defence Systems & Equipment International (DSEi) military trade show today in London, and I'm reminded of why I never fail to leave any one of the Smithsonian museums without a vague feeling of being stuffed and starved at the same time.
The Smithsonian has too much of everything, and not enough of anything. So does the DSEi show.
Tanks, armored vehicles, machine guns, chemical protection suits, unmanned aerial vehicles, combat radios, electronic connectors, boots, body armor, navigation systems, personal cooling systems, missiles, non-lethal hand grenades (I couldn't be making this up), rubber bullets, helicopters, a non-flying F-35 Joint Strike Fighter ... the list goes on and on.
Confused yet? Imagine how I feel. At least you're probably not sore from your hips to your big toes. When I say DSEi is big, I mean really big -- two-exhibit-halls-twice-as-wide-as-a-football-field-and-probably-four-times-as-long big.
I hadn't been getting my walks in of late. Between the London-rush-hour trip over here on the Underground -- lovingly called the Tube -- and winding my away around football fields of tanks, armored vehicles, machine guns ... well, you get the idea ..., and I've gotten my walks in for weeks.
If I force myself to get past the sheer, brute incongruity of it all, there are some pretty interesting things here. Meggitt plc in Christchurch, England, for example, is getting ready to introduce a soldier's personal, body-worn air conditioner that's about the size of a soft drink can. I can only imagine how they'll do the duct work to cool a warfighter from head to toe.
The unmanned aerial vehicles on display, as usual, are head-turners. And as is becoming fashionable at big defense shows these days, DSEi has the obligatory unmanned vehicle demonstration area, complete with protective netting to keep the flying things separate from show attendees.
Oh, and I forgot to mention my favorite exhibit at the show so far.
The armored cement mixer -- no, really. I suppose you never know when you'll need to build a concrete apron fast on some battlefield while the shooting is still going on ... or a basketball court, or a built-in barbecue and patio. At least that way we'll have good use for all that body armor and bolt-less helmets.
You'll have to excuse me now; I'm not finished walking the floors at DSEi. I need to go find the Kevlar basketballs and titanium barbecue spatulas.
Sunday, September 11, 2011
Posted by John Keller
The flaming twin towers of the World Trade Center against a crystal-blue September sky a decade ago today is seared into memory for most of us, but there are a few things about 9/11 that many of us know little about. How about tens of thousands of U.S.-bound airline passengers stranded in Canada after the FAA shut down U.S. airspace?
How about a couple of fighter pilots who took off from Andrews Air Force Base near Washington in unarmed F-16 jet fighters just after the first attacks, with intent to ram United Airlines Flight 93 -- a hijacked passenger jetliner heading for the nation's capital?
Well, I didn't know about all that stuff, either, until just a few days ago.
The morning of 11 Sept. 2001, Lt. Heather "Lucky" Penney of 121st Fighter Squadron in the D.C. Air National Guard and Col. Marc Sasseville were at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., after completing some flight training in Nevada. After hearing of terrorist planes crashing into the twin towers and the Pentagon, the two pilots sprinted to their aircraft.
The F-16s didn't have bullets or missiles, and there was no time to arm them. Hijacked aircraft, including United 93, were reported to be heading toward Washington, and they had to prevent them from hitting the Capitol, the White House, or any other civilian targets. Without weapons they had only one thing to do: crash their fighter jets kamikaze-style into the approaching United 93 to prevent it from reaching Washington.
Sasseville would go for the hijacked Boeing 757's cockpit, and Penney would go for the tail. As it turns out, they didn't have to make such an attack, which almost certainly would have cost them their lives. The passengers of United 93 did that when they tried taking the aircraft back from the terrorists, and the jetliner went down near Shanksville, Pa.
Now think about all the aircraft heading to the U.S. from Europe and Asia the morning of the September 11 attacks. An hour after the first airplane crashed into the World Trade Center, the FAA closed U.S. airspace.
At the time 255 passenger aircraft were heading towards the U.S. and didn't have the option of turning back. So what did they do?
They flew to Canada, and not to major airports in Ottawa, Toronto, or Montreal, That was considered to be too risky. Instead, they flew to airports in Newfoundland, Labrador, Nova Scotia, British Columbia, the Yukon Territory, from where passengers had to wait until they could make other travel arrangements.
The airport in Gander, Newfoundland, for example, took in 39 widebody jetliners and 6,600 passengers. Now consider that the town of Gander has fewer than 10,000 residents. Taking care of all those passengers was a monumental task.
Yet it was just one of the monumental tasks that Americans, Canadians, and many others had to do that day 10 years ago. There were little things and big things that people did. All of them are worth remembering today.
Friday, September 9, 2011
Posted by John Keller
President Obama's speech Thursday night, it looks to me, means not much is going to change. What worries me is the president apparently believes that government directly is capable of creating jobs. Now I know all presidents talk about government's creating jobs, but I don't think any president really believed it -- until now.
The private sector is not going to shift out of neutral, and will not get on with the business of job and wealth creation, until business leaders have some sense of the tax rates they will face in the long term, as well as the burdens from government they must bear, such as minimum wages, health insurance costs, and other factors. This holds true for the defense industry, as well as for other private business.
We have an offer from Obama of only temporary tax reductions, and a looming federal health care plan that could begin placing unprecedented costs on businesses and individuals starting in 2014. In sum, no one in private business is sure what they'll face over the next few years, and as long as that uncertainty remains, don't expect private business to do much hiring or investing -- even in the defense industry.
On a simplistic level, this might not make much sense. After all, doesn't the defense industry's fortunes rise and fall exclusively on levels of federal spending? While this may be true to a great extent, the defense industry also relies on a healthy private-sector economy, which today we don't have.
Think of the many layers of the defense industry supply chain. What percentage of suppliers to the U.S. military do you think receive checks directly from the government? I'll wager it's less than half -- and perhaps far less still. Everyone else is making money from the primes and subcontractors. If those primes and subcontractors are worried about the economy, they won't spend for internal research and development, and won't be in the mood to take the kinds of risks necessary for technological innovation.
Instead, they'll spend only as much money on goods and services as they have to, and nothing more. This kind of stagnation will remain, as long as the defense industry, like everyone else, is paralyzed with uncertainty.
Now couple that with the dread building in the defense industry over prospects of deep cuts in the Pentagon's budget. There's worry about business prospects in general, and about cuts in the defense budget in particular.
These aspects don't add up to a very pretty picture.