Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The continuing drone war of low-tech vs. high-tech

Posted by John Keller

THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 26 Feb. 2013. I read with amusement recent stories about how al-Qaida and its terrorist allies throughout the world are finding ways to defeat U.S. and allied intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance with unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) sensors.

It seems that al-Qaida is using mud, grass mats, trees, and other low-tech approaches to defeat high-tech UAV sensor payloads. My favorite: mounting grass mats on poles to hide cars from the prying eyes of overhead drones.

Low-tech vs. high-tech. This is an old story in warfare, and one that all too often favors the side with few resources in its battles against a technologically superior foe.

It's also a good way to bleed-off the resources of the supposedly superior combatant. Grass mats cost pocket changes, versus thousands or millions of dollars for unmanned drones and UAV sensor payloads.

Here's a guess: al-Qaida and its friends can afford to supply their forces with grass mats and poles long after the U.S. runs out of money for UAVs and ISR sensors.

There's an old adage in air-to-air warfare that goes something like this: the pilot who can out-turn his adversary will always win the day. We can apply that to the low-tech vs. high-tech war. The combatant who can defeat sophisticated technology on the cheap will always win the day.

The implications of that are ominous, but we've seen this before.

One of the most strategically important U.S. military goals of the Vietnam War half a century ago was to prevent the North Vietnamese army from supplying Viet Cong guerrillas in the south via the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Millions of dollars were spent on sophisticated sensors, defoliants, and infiltration techniques to deny that vital supply route to Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces in the south.

U.S. forces tried ammonia sensors to detect concentrations of enemy fighters by their perspiration. In response, the Viet Cong hung buckets of urine in the trees. The Americans tried sound and seismic sensors, for which the played tape recordings of truck traffic. Special mud-making chemicals were tried, and in response the Viet Cong corduroyed the roads with logs and bamboo.

The Viet Cong also employed a primitive-yet-effective alarm system to warn them of U.S. military landings nearby. Native tribesmen were hired to bang pots and ring gongs when Americans were seen.

The war in Vietnam ... I'm trying to remember who won that one.

There are plenty of lessons to be learned. Unfortunately many of the lessons aren't pleasant ones.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Prospects for high-performance embedded computing (HPEC) look brighter than ever before

Posted by John Keller

THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 19 Feb. 2013. I wonder who remembers the days when military high-performance embedded computing, which today we call HPEC, involved PowerPC microprocessors with AltiVec technology, or before that the Intel i860 digital signal processor.

Anyone? (crickets) ... anyone at all?

Well all right then, but my point is that we've come a long way since the i860 and AltiVec days, driven by some of the latest central processing unit (CPU) technologies like the latest-generation Intel Core i7, the latest field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) from manufacturers like Xilinx, Altera, and Microsemi, and general-purpose graphics processing unit (GPGPU) technologies from NVIDIA and AMD.

I'm a little sheepish to admit that I remember when one of the fondest computer science goals of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) was to create "a gigaflop in a soup can."

Today we're approaching accessible embedded computing technology that can provide a gigaflop on a chip, and there doesn't seem to be any end in sight.

GPGPU technology -- which is a massively parallel processing architecture that particularly lends itself well to floating-point digital signal processing -- continues to evolve on a trajectory similar to what we've known as Moore's Law, and GPGPU software programming tools are making this technology broadly available. FPGA devices and software programming tools are improving apace.

DARPA -- never to be counted out when it comes to high-performance military computing -- lately has launched the ICECool program, short for Intrachip/Interchip Enhanced Cooling, which promises eventually to fabricate in-device liquid cooling as part of the semiconductor manufacturing process.

The ICECool program, now aimed primarily at embedded computing and RF monolithic microwave integrated circuit (MMIC) power amplifiers, seeks to remove waste heat from electronic components at the rate of one kilowatt per square centimeter heat flux, and one kilowatt per cubic centimeter heat density.

DARPA's involvement in HPEC expends much farther than the ICECool program. Last fall the agency awarded research contracts to SRI International in Princeton, N.J., and to Reservoir Labs Inc. in New York for the Power Efficiency Revolution For Embedded Computing Technologies (PERFECT) program, which seeks to overcome power efficiency barriers that limit the capabilities of military embedded systems.

The DARPA PERFECT program aims to increase the power efficiency of HPEC systems to from today's 1 billion floating point operations per second per Watt (GFLOPS/w), to 75 GFLOPS/w.

Imagine the kind of embedded computing capability these technologies could yield if they ever come to pass.

Today military intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance experts complain that today's data processing capability and thirst for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) information leaves us "swimming in sensors, and drowning in data."

Well, the HPEC technology available today, and promises for the future, could go a long way to solve that problem.

The issue with swimming in sensors and drowning in data isn't so much a problem of too much data, as it is too much SUPERFLUOUS data. Sensors are everywhere churning out oceans of data. There aren't enough processors or human analysts to keep up -- today that is.

But just take a look at GPGPU technology. This processing approach began life as a high-performance graphics engine aimed at high-end gaming. It didn't take long for the embedded computing community to catch on that GPGPUs were high-performance parallel processors applicable to DSP applications like radar and sonar processing, electronic warfare, and signals intelligence.

One interesting thing about GPGPU technology, however, is not so much its intrinsic parallel processing capability, but is closely related to its graphics processing roots.

One expert explains that graphics processors are particularly good at putting together lots of data into a coherent picture. What embedded computing designers also are finding is that the graphics capability of GPGPUs also are extremely good at TAKING APART complex pictures boiling them down only to the information that's needed.

Think finding a needle in a haystack, really fast.

Now think about persistent-surveillance applications that can stare at a wide area like a city for weeks and months at a time. From that universe of data, might be quickly extracted information about specific terrorist or other suspicious behavior ...

... or finding other kinds of needles in different haystacks.

It's going to be very interesting.

There's one thing that bugs me, though, and it involves GPGPU technology -- more to the point, its crummy name.

In the aerospace and defense community, HPEC designers primarily are involved with complex signal processing, not graphics, so I think we ought to lose the GPGPU name and its reference to graphics.

So I'm proposing a new name for what until now we have known as GPGPU technology, and here it is: high-performance embedded parallel processing, or HPEPP for short.

Give it some thought; heck, it must might catch on.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Self-sealing suction cups show promise for future robots

Robots have a hard time doing a lot of things we don't even need to think twice about. Take operating a valve, for example. A robot needs to be specifically designed to grasp and rotate a valve, and that design usually won't be suitable for operating a valve of a different size. Well, scientists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory and Edgewood Chemical Biological Center appear to have a solution, suction cups.

Now, suction cups aren't new to robotics, they've been in use for over 50 years. What's exciting about the technology now is self-sealing suction cup technology, which means each individual suction cup can actuate based on the object the robot wants to pick up.

This new technology involves a plug that sits in the suction inlet. When the pump (the source of the suction) is activated, the plug of any cup that isn't in contact with an object gets sucked in to prevent any leaks. This creates a larger different in pressure between the inside of the suction cup and the outside, strengthening the suction capability of the cups that are actually on an object. The design also makes use of passive reaction forces that cause the cup to activate and open when the lip contacts an object, breaking the seal to initiate suction.

In short, the new suction cup technology means robots equipped with these self-sealing suction cups are capable of picking up and manipulating a wider variety of objects in a wider variety of environments (the technology is well suited for use underwater as well as on land). Of course, the technology is still in its infancy, but it is proving to be extremely effective. Just four fingertip sized cups can lift a bottle of wine securely.

Robots are not only capable of going more places now, but they will be able to interact with the environment in meaningful ways and even operate tools in just a short time. The technology is intended to be used in emergency and disaster response situations, but it's entirely possible this technology will enable robots to be used in any dangerous task that requires simple object manipulation. Why send a person when a robot can do the same job without risk of getting hurt?

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Air Force moving forward with potential upgrades to PAVE PAWS, BMEWS, and PARCS missile-defense radar

Posted by John Keller

THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 7 Feb. 2013. U.S. Air Force planners are wrapping up the first phase of what may become a long-term project to modernize and upgrade three ageing ground-based ballistic missile warning radar systems known as PAVE PAWS, BMEWS, and PARCS.

This initiative, which results from a request for information (solicitation number: 01262012) last year may lead to a project to upgrade radar front-end equipment on PAVE PAWS, BMEWS, and PARCS such as radar receivers, exciters, and beam steering units.

The size of the strategic radar systems upgrade -- if it actually comes to pass -- would depend on how much money the Air Force has to spend on it, which likely won't be much, experts say. PAVE PAWS is short for Phased Array Warning System; BMEWS is the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System; and PARCS is the Perimeter Acquisition Radar Attack Characterization System.

The latest step in upgrading the missile-warning radar systems, called an early engineering effort, involves an attempt by the Air Force Electronic Systems Center (ESC) at Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass., to identify defense companies that could oversee or contribute to systems upgrades and technology insertion on these radar systems.

ESC officials are scheduled soon to submit a report to Air Force Space Command at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., to present a status report on the condition of the radar systems, as well as to put forth options on potential upgrades and technology insertion.

If a formal industry solicitation results from this early engineering effort to upgrade PAVE PAWS, BMEWS, and PARCS, it mostly likely would not be issued for perhaps more than a year, experts say. A solicitation most likely would come from Air Force Materiel Command at Hanscom.

Should the Air Force move ahead with a major upgrade initiative for the strategic radar systems, it would involve technology refresh for the front-end and remoting capabilities.

The PARCS upgrade project may require technology insertion for the back-end processing capabilities that will support front-end modernization. PAVE PAWS and BMEWS will have received significant upgrades to their data- and signal-processing subsystems by 2016 in separate efforts.

Such a major upgrade and technology-insertion program could be large and expensive. Some of these legacy radar sites have been around for 30 to 40 years, and their front ends essentially never have been touched, experts say.

One contractor familiar with the systems says component failures are happing in the old radar systems "left, right, and center." The central issue with the radars, however, involves component obsolescence rather than component and subsystem failures.

One expert familiar with the systems says PAVE PAWS, BMEWS, and PARCS sites "are still in really shape. They are built like tanks." To date, the ITT Exelis Electronic Systems segment in Clifton, N.J., is the prime sustainment and modernization contractor for these radar systems.

PAVE PAWS is a ground-based radar system that provides U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) at Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, Neb., with warning and attack-assessment information on all intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) launched throughout the world that might be headed for U.S. territory.

BMEWS, meanwhile, is a ground-based radar system that helps warn USSTRATCOM and NATO authorities of submarine- and sea-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) attacks and provides data to help evaluate the severity of ballistic missile attacks.

PARCS is a large radar installation in North Dakota that provides ballistic missile warning and attack assessment, as well as space surveillance data to the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., as well as to USSTRATCOM and regional combatant commanders. PARCS monitors and tracks more than half of all Earth-orbiting objects with its AN/FPQ-16 phased-array radar system pointed northward over Hudson Bay, and analyzes more than 20,000 tracks per day, from giant satellites to space debris.

PARCS was built in the early 1970s, and its signal processing has received only superficial fixes since the site went online in 1975. PARCS uses 1960s-era technology, which is not widely used, and few sources are available for depot-level repair on failed components, Air Force officials say.

The PAVE PAWS and BMEWS beam steering unit (BSU), receiver exciter (REX), receiver beam former (RBF), array group driver (AGD), radio frequency monitor (RFM), frequency time standard (FTS), and the corporate feed (CFD) were built for these five radars in the late 1970s and were upgraded in the 1980s, Air Force officials say. The REX and FTS already have been redesigned and upgraded at the Beale Air Force Base, Calif., Fylingdales, England, and Thule, Greenland sites as part of the Upgraded Early Warning Radar (UEWR) programs. They will be upgraded at the Clear, Alaska, and Cape Cod, Mass., sites by 2016 or 2017., officials say.

Still, the PAVE PAWS and BMEWS have not upgraded the array front end of these radar systems, and this equipment has been in service without being replaced for More than 20 years and is rapidly nearing obsolescence, which requires a substantial technology-refresh effort.

The PARCS signal processing group (SPG) consists of 10 cabinets of equipment with hundreds of unique parts. The SPG generates frequency-modulated pulses for transmission, spectrum inversion, and pulse compression; performs side lobe reduction; as well as compares and processes track signals, multiplexing, and signal conversion. Extensive alignment and maintenance are necessary to maintain proper signal reception and analog digital conversion, Air Force officials explain.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Cyberattacks carried out against media outlets

It sure is a busy time for cybersecurity right now. We've seen attacks on the power grid and banks in the past few months, and now it's on to media. Well, at least this time we know (or at least have good reason to believe) the hackers are Chinese.

The attacks, which were carried out on the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal, focused around gathering information about journalists who covered the Chinese government. Investigations are still taking place to figure out exactly what information was compromised, and what the full effects will be.

Now, this is something I started off being fairly nonplussed about. A company that controls non-critical infrastructure was attacked, "this isn't something that affects national security at all," I told myself. Then I realized that if we allow these attacks to go unpunished we have a serious problem. If somebody hurls a brick through a window and steals a bunch of personal information I expect the police to get involved. The same thing should happen if hackers attack a website that contains personal information. Especially if those hackers are supported by a nation's government.

If media outlets can't feel safe to publish pieces that are less than kind to Chinese officials we have a real problem on our hands. Should these sites have had better security? Sure, better security is a good thing to have. Should they be capable of taking on the resources of an entire country? No, I think that's asking a little too much.

We need to put something into effect that makes it so countries can't just attack whoever they want. Even Google had to go to the National Security Agency in 2010 after attacks (that were believed to be associated with Beijing) seeking data on Gmail users were carried out. We can't expect individual companies to be able to protect themselves adequately from organizations with vast resources without some guidance. I know Congress is working on cybersecurity legislation right now, and it really can't come soon enough. It doesn't even need to be particularly good, it just needs to be something.