Harnessing Powerful Data at the Edge

Soldiers around military gear in the desert overlaid on top of a digital rendering showing a tank, battleship and airplane.

How edge technologies create information superiority

With an explosion of data in the digital battlespace, today’s frameworks, systems, and architectures can’t keep up with the pace of information, resulting in isolated warfighters. To empower them, it’s critical to provide the ability to analyze, process, and move data in and from an available to contested environment to aid in better decision making—leading to an increase in lethality and survivability.

Warfighters are the U.S. military’s greatest asset, as shown by its “people first” stance. And to increase their survivability, warfighters need access to critical intel in contested environments, connectivity even at the tactical edge, and trusted data on which to make crucial decisions.

While warfighters have more data than ever at their fingertips, they're limited by the ability of the human brain to receive, understand, and act on this data quickly. Imagine that a warfighter observes an oncoming adversary and uses their communication device to notify headquarters of the threat. While they wait for headquarters to receive the data, check the data source, analyze and understand the data, and communicate back, the adversary notices the warfighter’s signal emission and pinpoints the location. At the same time, the warfighter’s sensors become disconnected, and the adversary jams communications to headquarters and teammates. The warfighter loses the visual and becomes immediately vulnerable to attack from the enemy while no longer receiving information on the threat’s location or actions. 

This scenario illustrates just a few challenges warfighters face in making rapid decisions at the tactical edge:

Unreliable Connectivity

Warfighters face communications challenges even between teams due to compromised sensor connections and jammed or denied communications channels. They are often totally cut off in delayed or disconnected, intermittent, low-bandwidth (DIL) environments.

Inability to Process Data

While data is at a premium, understanding it is difficult because there is no way the human brain can process, analyze, and understand the data fast enough to make decisions in an instant. This lack of situational awareness can mean the difference between life and death.

Multiple Data Sources and Communications Networks

A complex, global mission that maintains mission synchronization means coordination may be necessary across several military and commercial networks, using data from multiple sensors, and across a multitude of platforms and devices. But all of these data sources and communications networks bring challenges with the sharing of data and deployment of algorithms for analysis.

Latency in Communications

Data from the field is collected on sensors, captured at the ground station, copied to the operation center, tagged for analysis, prioritized for response, and then eventually sent back to the warfighter whose decisions depend on it. Any lag and latency in communications can directly harm the safety and situational awareness of warfighters on the front lines. They might not have the ability, or the time, to receive intelligence from central operations.

Given these challenges, the question becomes: How do we analyze and process data at the tactical edge in or moving in between a communications-denied environment to increase real-time situational awareness in battle?

Making Edge a Reality from Data Collection to Presentation

Given the need for warfighters to leverage data—the second most critical asset—without relying on a successful transmission to headquarters, we must look to capabilities that enable warfighters at the tactical edge: edge computing, human-machine platforms, and edge data services.

Edge Computing

Edge computing is the computing and processing that can occur at the edge of the IT enterprise by creating ecosystems out of devices already in the battlespace using smart technologies. For the warfighter, the edge of the IT enterprise is the tactical edge—such as the soldier on the battlefield, the individual aircraft, or a satellite. Instead of sending data back to headquarters to apply algorithms for analysis, the algorithms are brought to the data on the edge device itself, where data is collected and decisions are made. This helps decrease the data-to-decision chain and maintains situational awareness for warfighters and the entire operation.

We see two major components of edge computing: the sensor processing unit (SPU) and the mesh communications network:

  • The SPU is installed on existing operational platforms through a framework built around core software that augments current resources. It is hardware-agnostic and enables sensor fusion and processing using the hardware acceleration that’s already there. It provides the ability to send data from mission systems to on-the-move and edge devices with little to no connectivity. Once the SPU is within range to the tactical or fixed cloud, it helps to synchronize and update the central infrastructure, including mission applications and data, with the latest information available regardless of where it was collected.
  • The mesh communications network enables devices to leverage the compute and storage available through a distributed processing architecture. Using technology that’s already deployed on the front lines—such as vehicles, drones, or sensors—mesh networks of smart devices are created to transform the local communications environment. With a common framework and architecture ready for deployment, edge platforms can start communicating. This network can transmit lifesaving data no matter the environment, so that our soldiers and field operators can stay focused on making safe, informed decisions, without worrying about connectivity.

Human-Machine Platforms

Edge happens on the human platform—through a connected suite of sensors. Imagine a warfighter with a sensor suite that provides greater situational awareness and enables faster action. Each member of the small-combat team has a sensor processing unit allowing for AI-powered data analytics at the tactical edge. Sensors gather intel and enable near-instantaneous sharing and receiving of data. The battlefield network enables communication and command and control with instant access to manned and unmanned vehicles, equipment, and sensors. 

Edge Data Services

To enable this rapid decision making, DOD must employ edge data services. Government-owned application programming interfaces (API) make data accessible to enable data identification, analysis, and secure processing in real time. U.S. and coalition partners can send and share information that’s protected with powerful cybersecurity from enterprise to edge. Controls can be set up to declassify information at the point of need to inform the mission.

Powered by built-in processing and machine learning operations (MLOps), data is able to be securely processed in contested environments, giving warfighters and their squads access to data-driven insights in the most difficult communications scenarios. If analysis is too burdensome for an individual warfighter, processing power can be shared by another member of the squad—whether human or machine—to understand the data. When communications with headquarters resume, the data is shared through the federated data platform—a shared architecture across all services, enabling information distribution from enterprise to edge.

Mission Support at the Tactical Edge

For warfighters, there is a lot on the line. These individuals need to be able to access information when and where needed to make quick and accurate decisions—both for mission success and for the security of themselves and their teammates. 

Remember the warfighter scenario previously described? This time imagine that same warfighter, but with the ability to collect, analyze, and process that same data at the tactical edge, without expending time or resources or creating a radio frequency signature to send the data back to headquarters in order to understand and act on the information. Using a connected system of wearable devices, the warfighter collects data from the battlespace and rapidly analyzes intelligence to inform the best course of action.  

In the future, edge-enabled digital battlespace, warfighters will:

  • Access Data That Is Securely Processed in Available and Contested Environments: With no cloud connection required and with computing enabled at the source, processing can happen at the point of data collection—on the device itself and in the moments that matter most—helping organizations carry out their mission at the tactical edge.
  • Rapidly Make Decisions: Without a need to send data to central command or a distant server, lag time in decision making drops. Warfighters have access to the insights they need, in the format they need, in real time, cutting the time it takes to close the observe-orient-decide-act (OODA) loop.
  • Be Connected at the Tactical Edge: Teams can process and exploit data, even in denied and degraded environments. When communications with headquarters resume, the data is shared through the federated data platform across all services, enabling information distribution from enterprise to edge.
  • Experience Near-Instantaneous Sharing of Data: Close-combat forces will have access to a continuously updated common operating picture that gives them real-time data about themselves, the enemy, and the terrain, allowing for heightened situational awareness and coordinated, yet independent, action. Through an open, universally distributed, and secure architecture, our edge computing platform enables devices to transmit, process, and share information seamlessly in the field. Without the need for a cloud or network for data processing, this framework increases survivability, lethality, and safety for individuals—no matter how remote the mission.

As warfighters continue to be placed in vulnerable situations—isolated without the power of data—the ability to provide them with full situational awareness is within reach. Applying solutions from edge technologies, already available within commercial capacities and already being deployed by the U.S. military, we can continue to transform warfare and give the United States a competitive advantage using the power of data. 

Continue exploring how to achieve overmatch in our vision for the digital battlespace

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