Monday, October 29, 2012

Hurricane Sandy hits trade shows, cancels flights, strands travelers along the entire East Coast

Posted by John Keller

So much for travel plans that fall in the path of a hurricane.

Flights cancelled, trade shows abandoned, all due to Hurricane Sandy, a 1,000-mile-wide tropical cyclone that's smashing into the U.S. East Coast causing rain, flooding, blizzards, high winds, and power outages from Key West to Quebec.

Two big aerospace and defense shows were scheduled for this week in Orlando -- AFCEA MILCOM, which has become THE military embedded computing conference, and National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) annual meeting and convention. MILCOM's cancelled, while NBAA appears to be on.

I made plans to attend both shows, but here I remain in New Hampshire, with no flights available today and probably tomorrow, as well. We'll be lucky if commercial air travel is back to normal by the end of the week.

AFCEA MILCOM officials made the decision Sunday to cancel the show after determining that at least 40 percent of exhibitors and attendees most likely would not be able to make it to Orlando. Count all of us here in the Northeast as part of that 40 percent.

Only one of our staff, Courtney Howard, will be able to make the NBAA show, and it's only because she's traveling from the West Coast where flights remain unaffected by the gathering hurricane.

I was optimistic about making it out before the effects of the hurricane hit. Still, as of this morning, flights were cancelled. It's not just our staff who can't get flights out. Evidently thousands of European travelers are stuck on the East Coast until the big weather event passes.

I can't imagine the amount of money being lost, just in the cancellation of MILCOM. Companies have shipped booths and equipment, made hotel reservations, bought plane tickets, and made all kinds of other arrangements, all for nothing.

My condolences go out to all the companies and attendees who will have to wait until next year for MILCOM 2013. We await attendance results of the NBAA show to see how Hurricane Sandy has hit that conference.

As for me, I'm still here in New Hampshire, posting content until the power goes out. Good luck to everyone in the path of the hurricane.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Military business slows to a trickle; now a matter of how hard things will get

Posted by John Keller

We've been hearing for a long time about hard times coming for the military and aerospace business. In fact, I've been hearing about a defense downturn since long before President Obama even took office.

Still, the beginning of federal fiscal year 2013, which was the first of this month, has left me with little doubt that the hard times no longer are coming.

They're here.

I pay fairly close attention to the Pentagon's contract solicitations and awards. Everything was proceeding normally until the end of September. Then at the end of the month and the beginning of October we had a flurry of activity -- particularly in contract awards. That's to be expected, as program managers try to use their annual allotments.

Then a couple of days into the new fiscal, the Pentagon's money spigot slowed to a trickle. I don't have numbers of contracts and dollar amounts to cite. What I have is anecdotal evidence and a gut feel, but military business activity felt like it dropped off a cliff somewhere around the fourth or fifth of this month.

At first I thought the dropoff in military contracts and solicitations was some sort of anomaly -- it still may turn out to be so -- but with each passing day I see more of the same.

It's not just that contracting has dropped off; it's the kind of awards and solicitations being announced. Most of it involves maintenance, services, and small research projects. Even many of the technology upgrade programs have disappeared. Those that remain are intended to keep hold on the status-quo, not to make substantial improvements in capability.

It's a clear indication that the military is shrinking at an accelerating pace. In fact, the trends indicate that the Pentagon right now is hard-pressed to keep what they already have in acceptable working order. In short, our military structure is being placed in mothballs, that is, until more money becomes available, or until some military crisis hits.

I wish I had some good news, but things could get even tougher, as we face a congressionally mandated "fiscal cliff" of sequestration in January if lawmakers can't agree on controlled cuts. Make no mistake, we're in for a rough go for at least the next six months to a year.

Things to look for: the results of the presidential election; whether or not Congress heads off sequestration; and the Pentagon's fiscal year 2014 budget request next February.

If Mitt Romney wins, it's better for the defense industry, but it won't represent an immediate turnaround. Government money is tight, and is likely to remain so.

Congress could do something about sequestration in a lame-duck session, but I'm not optimistic. Even if sequestration is avoided, defense still faces cuts. It will simply be a question of horrible, or merely miserable.

The Department of Defense budget request in February will be an important indicator, not only for how much money the Pentagon plans to spend, but also where that money will go if Congress approves.

So if you're in the defense business, cross you fingers. It's not a question of whether things will get more difficult, but a matter of just how difficult things will get.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Alpha Dog demonstrates what quadruped robots can do

Quadruped robots have fantastic utility, being able to traverse most forms of terrain that ground troops can move makes them incredibly versatile, but certain limitations have always held them back. Historically these robots have been slow moving, loud, and incapable of picking themselves up if they fall down (and eventually any machine will make a mistake regardless of how well built or programmed it is).

Well, Boston Dynamics has once again proven that quadruped technology is more than just a pipe dream. Their Alpha Dog robot has now demonstrated the ability to move on flat surfaces at 7 mph, traverse rocky, unstable terrain at 3 mph, and even right itself when it falls on its side. It even does all of this while carrying a 400 lb. load.

Not only is the Alpha Dog much more capable than previous quadruped robots, it can automatically follow soldiers who are carrying a mobile device while avoiding obstacles, and operates more quietly than ever before. Those who have tested the robot have said it is now possible to carry on a conversation while walking alongside it, a huge improvement over the very noisy Big Dog robot.

DARPA plans on using these robots alongside soldiers in operational exercises, where these robots will be considered for deployment. With advances like these being made it's only a matter of time before we see them trotting alongside soldiers, lightening their loads and, perhaps, performing other duties as well. There's a lot you can do with a robot that can travel anywhere, sense objects and carry 400 lbs.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Looming fiscal cliff threatens to strike after the presidential election

Posted by John Keller

The so-called fiscal cliff of sequestration, which threatens to take a deep gouge of nearly half a billion dollars out of the U.S. defense budget over the next 10 years, is still as much of a threat today as it ever was, but you'd never know it with so much media attention riveted on the presidential election.

Strange this fiscal cliff has not been more of an issue in either the Romney or Obama campaigns. This ticking time bomb, initiated by a Congress that's much more concerned with partisan political trivia than with the faltering U.S. economy, because this legislative device threatens hundreds of thousands of American jobs, as well as U.S. military preparedness.

Sequestration threatens to lop off $1.2 trillion from about 1,200 federal programs over the next decade. Moreover, sequestration threatens to make these cuts in indiscriminate ways that have the potential to hurt people and programs in brutal ways.

Sequestration was set up by Congress to trigger automatic deep cuts in federal spending in early January if lawmakers are unable to agree on more-controlled spending drawdowns. This proposed remedy is so severe that it reminds me of incidents during the Vietnam War when soldiers said they had to destroy villages in order to save them.

It was absurd then, and the sequestration approach is absurd now. Indiscriminate and abrupt cuts in federal spending will cause hundreds of thousands of Americans to lose their jobs, but consider the long-term ramifications of that.

Imagine the private businesses that provide goods and services today to those people who could be out of a job before the end of this calendar year. What happens when those laid-off people have to cut their household budgets drastically just to survive. How many businesses would be forced to close as a result of big reductions in disposable income?

No congressman or senator who had a hand in any vote that authorized this sequestration monster deserves your vote on November 6.

Not one.

Remember that, also, when the senators not facing the voters this year come up for re-election.

Those in the House and Senate should have thought of this, but they didn't, because sequestration was never supposed to happen. Instead, it was supposed to be "incentive" for members of Congress to work together to head off this disaster.

No deal has been hammered out, thus far, to head this off. When and if sequestration hits, the resulting pain and suffering of thousands of Americans will make us forget quickly about the trivial campaign issues dominating media attention leading up to the election -- things like contraception, Big Bird, binders of women, and perceived glass ceilings.

One might think that Congress and the Obama Administration might act with some sort of a sense of urgency as the sequestration deadline creeps closer, but instead the issue simply has become ever-more politicized.

If the law were to be followed, thousands of U.S. defense industry employees would receive layoff notices the Friday before the presidential election on 6 Nov. Oh but we can't have that, can we? While the law says defense contractors must notify employees at least 60 days before layoffs take effect, it doesn't look like that's going to happen.

In response to pressure from the Obama Administration, Lockheed Martin, the nation's largest defense contractor, in early October backed down from plans to issue layoff warnings to employees just before the November election.

The Obama administration has, company leaders said, gave them assurances that it won’t immediately kill any major defense contracts when automatic spending cuts go into effect in January.

This will solve nothing. If sequestration hits, some defense programs will be reduced or eliminated, defense employees will be laid off, and unemployment will start rising immediately. Delay only might keep some otherwise angry defense employees from taking their frustrations out in the voting booth.

In short, we face a mess that won't go away from ignoring it. This willful denial of what needs to be done for too long is what got into this in the first place.

Here's hoping that, whoever wins the presidential election in November, that Congress will do something -- anything -- to stop sequestration during a lame-duck session. How hard can it be? Members of Congress, after all, are experts at kicking the can down the road.

If they don't, then whoever is sworn in as president in January will face a monumental catastrophe.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Stealing a drone by spoofing, is it that easy?

Spoofing, which is essentially cyber forgery, has been proven to be capable of taking control (or at least misguiding) unmanned vehicles that use GPS as part of their navigation systems.

Spoofing is one of the ways Iran could have gotten access to the drone they received late last year, the one that landed unharmed in hostile territory with barely a scratch. It looks like the U.S. military is concerned about this kind of attack, as they have seen it fit to saddle Rockwell Collins with the task of developing technology "to locate and classify an adversary's attempts to interfere with GPS signals and disrupt military operations."

GPS spoofing isn't new, it's been around for as long as GPS, but with UAVs and other GPS guided unmanned vehicles becoming more popular this sort of misdirection is now a threat. GPS spoofing is simple, a device pretends that it is a GPS satellite and tells another device, such as a drone, that it is at a certain location, rather than its actual position. Since many unmanned vehicles use GPS as part of their navigation system, it is possible to force them to behave in certain ways. Tell a UAV it's too high and it will attempt to go lower, tell it it's too far to the East and it will move West, simple stuff.

Now, GPS spoofing isn't necessarily a serious threat to the military, which uses encrypted GPS signals and several methods of navigation on important systems (though if Iran actually spoofed the drone down it is, we may never know). GPS spoofing is more of a minor annoyance to the military. The problem is that civillian airspace is going to be opened up to drones eventually, and in the next few years it might not be unusual to see drones being used by police forces or even commercial companies.

GPS spoofing is a threat because GPS is cheap and easy to use, making it popular in these unmanned vehicles that could be flying around your neighborhood in the future.

Cyber warfare is a serious thing, and it's good to see the defense industry preparing itself for some of the newer forms of attack that have emerged.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Drone operation? There's an app for that.

Soldiers on the battlefield may eventually be able to get supplies delivered directly to them via unmanned rotorcraft by using a smart phone, or similar device, to control a drone with a simple application.

The Office of Naval Research (ONR) has given contracts to Lockheed Martin and Aurora Flight Science to develop an unmanned rotorcraft to deliver cargo on the battlefield. The ultimate goal of this project? To allow warfighters to operate unmanned rotorcraft with a smartphone-esque device.

With the Department of Defense's (DOD) interest in automation, as evidenced by UAV swarms, unmanned underwater vehicles (UVVs), and submarine-tracking unmanned surface vessels, this seems like a logical extension of improved autonomous vehicle controls. The program itself is a five-year effort, which will include the development of sensors and control technologies for autonomous rotorcraft.

Smartphone applications have also been a tool that has seen more and more use by the DOD as time goes on, with applications designed to help soldiers make smart choices at home and for rapid response in disaster scenarios. The idea that each soldier will be connected to the web and have a GPS device on them is allowing the DOD to create applications to provide important services to soldiers.

This possible application will help prevent casualties by putting fewer manned convoys into harms way to deliver supplies, along with making important supplies more accessible to soldiers on the front lines.

With a goal of getting a flight demonstration into the air in 18 months, soldiers may soon find themselves in a situation where if supplies are low they don't need to worry; there's an app for that.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

NASA Radiation Belt Storm Probes Mission to yield new information on rad-hard electronics

Posted by John Keller

NASA is working with industry and academia to do the most comprehensive-ever mapping of the radiation belts around Earth so that space experts have a clear idea of the locations and intensities of radiation concentrations to help future satellites and manned spacecraft effectively avoid them.

NASA launched two test and instrumentation satellites in August on the Radiation Belt Storm Probes Mission to learn in minute detail how the radiation belts are populated with charged particles, what causes them to change, and how these processes affect the upper reaches of the atmosphere around Earth.

NASA will use information from the two-year mission to better protect satellites and understand how space weather affects communications and technology on Earth. The mission also is helping researchers in the microelectronics industry learn even more about radiation-hardened electronics.

"We get single-event upsets every time we go through those belts," says Brian Orlowski, program manager of space products at rad-hard electronics designer BAE Systems Electronic Systems in Manassas, Va.

BAE Systems is providing rad-hard synchronous dynamic random-access memory (SDRAM) and chalcogenide random-access memory (CRAM) chips that are part of the radiation-measuring instruments and other electronics aboard the Radiation Belt Storm Probes Mission satellites.

This mission also is the first space flight of qualified CRAM chips, Orlowski says. Chalcogenide is an alloy of germanium antimonide and tellurium, for which BAE Systems has a sole license for building the technology for space applications, he says.

BAE Systems makes the CRAM chips together with partner and phase-change semiconductor memory technology expert Ovonyx Inc. in Sterling Heights, Mich.

BAE Systems also is using error detection and correction (EDAC) technology aboard the NASA satellites to detect and repair single-event upsets, which are bit flips in solid state memory caused by impact with charged particles in or near radiation sources.

The Radiation Belt Storm Probes Mission spacecraft also are equipped with BAE Systems RAD-750 computers, as well as the RTAX-2000 radiation-hardened computer from Microsemi Corp. SoC Products Group in Mountain View, Calif.

Thus far all components are working as expected, BAE Systems officials say. By the time this mission is scheduled to end in 2014, rad-hard experts will have much more information for advanced chip designs.

Monday, October 1, 2012

BAE and EADS speak about possible merger, claim expansion rather than contraction

When news dried up on the possible merger between BAE and EADS all that was left was speculation, and speculate we did. With shrinking defense budgets and many companies preparing for armageddon it makes sense that mergers would occur. However, Ian King, the Chief Executive of BAE Systems and Tom Enders, the Chief Executive of EADS, have now gone on the record saying the possible combination is not because of financial trouble.

The two chief executives explained that they hope to obtain a wider customer base, more scalability and a greater potential to ride the cycles of civil aviation and defense spending.

What I can't quite put my finger on is the purpose of the Op-Ed by the two chief executives. Is the goal to reassure investors and governments that the merger will be beneficial to all? Is it a response to the sudden $5.2 billion drop in EADS share values since news of the talks broke?

The message is meant to be one of prosperity, but one quote in particular is less than promising for current BAE and EADS employees.

The release, which was posted on the BAE website, reads "Clearly, there will be scope for efficiency savings when two companies of our size come together, but great benefit will derive from our ability to exploit new business opportunities. That has to be good for jobs and economic prosperity in the long term."

While growth in the long term is good, the statement seems to imply that the short term will result in employees being lost and facilities being closed.

Whatever happens in the current merger talks, this will have a large impact on the defense industry, and we at M&AE will be watching closely to see what happens next.