Friday, March 30, 2012

Conference combo

I just returned from the floor of Design West 2012 in San Jose. The conference organizers opted to combine multiple shows under one umbrella, a choice that proved, on the whole, to confound exhibitors, cause press to extend their stay and log additional miles on their pedometers, and both entertain and satisfy attendees.

Attendees with whom I spoke unanimously support the decision to hold seven events in concert. "I don't get out much," revealed an educator, engineer, and attendee working on aerospace research and development out of Portland, Ore. "I say 'throw the kitchen sink at me, I never know when I'll need the info; but one thing is for sure, when I realize I do need it, I need it now!'" He admitted to "pawing through" his notes and materials gathered during industry events very often throughout the months that follow.

Isn't that the true measure of a conference's value and success? What do you love and hate about avionics and military/aerospace events? What goals do you set out to achieve by taking part in industry events? I'd love to know; you can reach me anytime at or on Twitter (I'm @coho).

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

We can thank a self-absorbed Congress for hurting national defense if deep automatic defense cuts happen

Posted by John Keller

I'm as surprised as anyone, but at least a portion of those threatened automatic defense cuts in the U.S. budget actually may be coming to pass, experts say, which likely could put a stop to U.S. Air Force plans for a new long-range jet bomber, a new Army tactical vehicle, and could reduce the U.S. Navy's fleet of aircraft carriers lower than the current 11 vessels.

For the longest time, I dismissed such predictions, but this time it looks like I may be wrong. Still it's hard to believe because -- let's face it -- Congress can do anything it wants, provided a majority of congressmen and senators agree. This agreement, however, or lack of it, would seem to be at the root of the problem we're facing.

Rowan Scarborough of The Washington Times wrote a convincing piece in Sunday's paper entitled "Budget gridlock imperils national defense Arms systems cuts look likely," that outlines ominous prospects for automatic defense cuts -- or "sequestration," in Congress-speak.

Congress approved the 2011 Budget Control Act not long ago that calls for across-the-board defense cuts to begin on 1 Jan. 2013 if Congress fails to cut spending, increases taxes, or both to reign-in budget deficits. The law calls for Congress to cut defense spending by $500 billion over 10 years if lawmakers cannot reach agreement on budget targets, which looks increasingly likely.

The first of 2013 begins the first year of automatic budget cuts, and would take $50 billion from the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) budget. That's roughly one-tenth of the Pentagon's total annual budget, and almost certainly would mean elimination of several weapons programs.

I honestly thought it would never come to this, but I've never seen Congress so divided along ideological fault lines before. The big problem, with the way the law is written, is Congress simply has to do nothing for automatic spending cuts to take place.

Doing nothing? That's easy, especially for this Congress. When and if the cuts take place, each member of Congress simply can shrug his or her shoulders and claim, "not MY fault." Built-in political cover. That's a law made in Heaven for this Congress, and on hindsight, that's gotta be exactly the way they planned it.

Congress wins, the Pentagon loses. It's all so tawdry because it's so dishonest.

Dishonest? Congress? Well duh! Rather than voting defense cuts up or down, members of Congress have maneuvered themselves into letting cuts happen automatically by doing nothing and then being able to deny responsibility.

Is it any wonder that Congress is so unpopular with the American public? Is it any wonder that a "throw the bums out" mentality rears its ugly head among voters with increasing frequency? It's pretty obvious to me. With people like this in office, everyone's in trouble, not just the Pentagon.

Food for thought when we go to the polls in November.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Securing the military network

The U.S. military has a lot on their plate. With so much technology being released, the slow pace that the military has typically adapted to new technology is no longer working well. Even with a huge focus on networks, the branches of the U.S. military do not yet have a standard for securing their networks. There are rugged, secure routers and devices that communicate using wireless out there on the battlefield, but no standard that protects them and allows them to communicate easily.

Right now the military is looking at the National Security Agency (NSA) to produce a series of standards for encryption on the battlefield. Of course, this process can take over a year, which would mean devices and software that are optimized for the standard likely won't be released for another year after that.

A delay that lasts a year or longer is a huge deal for technology today. Look at what we have this year when compared to last. Quad-core phones when we hardly had dual-core last year, processors that allow for twice the processing power! Standards need to reflect the technology at the time, but when an organization is so slow to adapt to new technology it becomes difficult to design them. What is 256 bit encryption isn't useful anymore when the new standard comes out because quantum computers became more common?

It's strange that an organization that relies on the latest technology is incapable of actually getting that technology into the hands of soldiers. With all the resources at its disposal the DoD needs to evolve and cut through whatever red tape is slowing the process of creating a good communication standard and start giving warfighters the functionality civilians already have. It's kind of crazy that I can download an app that locates my friends, but a warfighter doesn't have the ability to do the same thing for his squad.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

FAA's impending rule on small UAVs may usher in a new era of civil aerial warfare

Posted by John Keller

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in Washington is getting ready to propose a new rule this year that would open up vast new opportunities for operating small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in non-controlled civil airspace. This is good news for developers, who have labored under sometimes-difficult FAA UAV rules that often require special FAA certifications to operate even the most small and simple UAVs from parking lots and back yards.

FAA officials say the new UAV regulations, which would make it easier to operate these small aircraft, could be as boon for law enforcement to conduct surveillance, traffic patrols, and other aerial work to replace or augment far-more-expensive manned helicopters.

Those who also could benefit are remote sensing companies, would could enhance satellite imagery with photo data taken from small UAVs, farmers who could use small UAVs to identify areas in their fields that need extra water or fertilizer, and even hobbyists designing new kinds of inexpensive sensor payloads for small UAVs.

It's those small sensor payloads, however, that are worrying some folks, because with enhanced access to airborne sensors, privacy advocates say the wrong kinds of eyes in the sky might be checking up on the wrong kinds of people. What about the celebrity Paparazzi who constantly are trying to get the latest photos of famous people. Put small UAVs in the hands of these people, and no one will have any privacy -- ever.

Think also about celebrities who own large estates with well-guarded perimeters and other defenses against prying eyes. Do you think these people will be able to pay extra for aerial rights over their estates?

Some, undoubtedly, will take matters into their own hands, as was reported last month at a privately owned plantation in South Carolina where owners sponsored a pigeon shoot for hunters. An animal rights group tried to photograph the event using a small UAV. The presence of the UAV caused the shooting party to disperse pretty quickly, but not without some hard feelings.

Before all was said and done that day, a shotgun blast from nearby cover knocked the animal rights group UAV out of the sky, causing it to crash on a nearby roadway. This, in turn, caused all kinds of outcry about the alleged recklessness of discharging a firearm near a public roadway, but the point was made.

Now I'm wondering if the upcoming FAA rules on operating small UAVs will make it open season for blasting these tiny aircraft out of the sky over private property. I realize the FAA is trying to put a lot of issues to rest with its upcoming new rulemaking, but I'm thinking it's going to open up a can of worms, as well.

Let the lawsuits begin.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Boeing and Airbus both claim victory in WTO Appeal? That can't be right...

There's been a lot of buzz about today's World Trade Organization (WTO) report, with both rival aircraft manufacturers claiming to have been the victor. Of course, both sides are spinning it in their own way.

Airbus, who less than a year ago, was found by the WTO to have received unfair government subsidies of $18 billion. Comparatively, Boeing's unfair subsidies were found to be along the lines of $5.3 billion. Airbus is celebrating the revelation of Boeing's unfair subsidies while Boeing is celebrating that their unfair subsidies were found to be less than a third of the ones Airbus received.

It's times like these where you have to cut through all the marketing being thrown by both sides and take a look at the facts. Both sides have received unfair subsidies and neither one complies with WTO standards. Airbus and Boeing are living in glass houses, but that isn't stopping either of them from throwing stones.

Hopefully the WTO can step in and make sure both sides play fair from here on out.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The defense industry may be adjusting to a new age of financial austerity

Posted by John Keller

I've noticed a few things about the financial shape of the aerospace and defense industry over the past month or two. It seems that company mergers and acquisitions are tailing off, while the number of contracts and procurement opportunities are headed up.

Now by no means is this observation about the health of the aerospace and defense industry based on any scientific analysis. Instead, it's more of a gut feel, and as such has all of my biases and wishful thinking folded into it.

Still, my gut feel largely is based on the past month's news coverage in Military & Aerospace Electronics. We've had a lot of stories covering contract wins and procurement opportunities, and not many covering mergers and acquisitions. Have we overly concentrated on contracts and opportunities lately, to the exclusion of mergers and acquisitions?

Perhaps, but let's stipulate for a moment that our industry actually has had fewer mergers and acquisitions lately, and more contracts and opportunities than we've had in a while. How might this bode for the future -- especially for an industry that's taking it on the chin in the Pentagon's 2013 budget request?

Well, to start with, this feels like a port in the storm for an industry that has been jittery for more than a year about future prospects for defense spending. Maybe ... just maybe, our industry has hit bottom and is on the way back up. Perhaps this is an early indication that the aerospace and defense industry is starting to adjust to a new era of financial austerity.

Our industry, for good or ill, is digesting the notion that a long streak of healthy Pentagon budgets might be at an end -- perhaps for quite a while. This means competition is ratcheting up, in government and in industry.

For those in government, it looks like they have to make do with less, in measurable terms. Not only does this mean the Pentagon can no longer fund many of the things its leaders want, but also must face the inevitable challenge of deciding what projects to keep, and which to abandon.

For those in industry, it means they have to work harder than they have in a long time to prevail over their competitors for military contract wins. Price, as always, will be a driving force, but as dollars dry up, military officials will look harder at capability and quality than they have in a long time.

For industry and government together, everyone will be in the hunt for breakthrough technologies that bring serious new capabilities to the table at reasonable costs.

None of that will be easy. Still, on those rare occasions when it happens, we'll know who the real heroes are.

Monday, March 5, 2012

What's up with all the anti-tamper technology?

Anti-tamper has been a hot topic for the military as of late. With so much information being sent to countless devices on the battlefield it's important that products offer the ability to render any data stored useless in case a device is lost or stolen. For those who are curious about anti-tamper methods and what the implications of them are, this blog will go over some of the more common ways of preventing data from being accessed.

Encryption is right up there on the list of easy ways to prevent data from being understood. A device may encrypt all of its data and be capable of deleting the keys required to read it, making the data a useless collection of bits. Of course, encryption is not fool proof since the data remains on the device. Commonly encryption is paired with methods of permanently deleting data.

Zeroing the drive (or whatever method of storage is used) is essentially the goal of anti-tamper procedures. Zeroing a device means writing all the bits so they read 0. A zeroed device is essentially a blank slate, completely free of information or any traces of information. The problem with attempting to simply wipe a device clean is the process can take hours depending on the size and method of storage used. A common tactic is to encrypt all data on a device and be capable of remotely deleting keys and starting a program that will zero all storage. This makes it so anyone who wants to access data needs to be able to not only decrypt the data, but they need to do so before it can be zeroed or stop the zeroing process.

Another method is to have all data on a device be sent to it via a secure network and contain no long-term storage. This allows a device to be rendered useless unless it can connect to the network or be captured while powered on. While data on a device such as this is secure, it contains a potentially dangerous link to whatever network it uses to power on. Proper network security mitigates these risks, but the threat remains.

The problem with these methods is that no form of anti-tamper is perfect. There are many other ways to render data useless (writing new data over old data, physically destroying the device, using a magnet to destroy stored information, etc.), but none are absolutely perfect. Even zeroing the drive is debated as to whether data can be restored or not. Whether the tradeoff is time, completeness or network security, anti-tamper has not yet been perfected.

As information on the battlefield gets sent to more and more devices, it might be the time to look more closely at anti-tamper and see where improvements can be made.