Air Force lab tweaks off-the-shelf IT gear to make it battle-ready

Air Force lab tweaks off-the-shelf IT gear to make it battle-ready

By Chris Driscoll

GCN Staff

The Air Force has stationed an agile research group called the Command and Control Battlelab on the front lines to make commercial computer products battle-ready but still cost-effective.

Current Battlelab projects at Hurlburt Field, Fla., include military applications of speech recognition, a Web information system accessible to Air Force personnel anywhere, and wireless command and control LANs using portable Unix workstations.

The speech recognition project does not use commercial software packages for normal dictation. Instead, it aims to deliver hands-free commands to military planning and management programs. Long used by radiologists and inventory-takers in the same way, speech recognition would give Air Force users a limited selection of spoken commands and eliminate the need for keyboards and mice.

Personnel wearing radiation suits and gloves, for example, could retrieve data from or enter data into a portable computer by speaking into a microphone built into a gas mask. So could pilots and equipment operators who had both hands occupied.

Because there are a limited number of commands, the Battlelab developers are focusing their effort on programming to recognize a wide variety of accents.

Simple language

'The vocabulary is only about 500 words. We're plugging in numbers, letters and words that we use every day,' said Capt. Curtis Evans, a Battlelab program manager.

'We are filling in a form. Instead of free speech, it is discrete speech, which makes it more robust because the computer can accept a wider variation' of pronunciation, he said. 'I have had Japanese, Turks, Russians and Israelis use it, and it worked for everyone.'

Subject matter experts have helped Battlelab conduct a time and motion study of several voice recognition schemes compared against doing the same operations manually.

'We thought there would be a big difference in productivity,' Evans said. 'There wasn't. But when people got out, they said, 'Man, I love using that.' One of the guys likened it to the difference between automatic and standard transmission'it gets you there but you don't have to work as hard.'

Another effort, the Reduced Hardware Footprint project, aims to lower costs and speed deployment of Air Force C2 systems by fitting portable Unix workstations with flat-panel monitors and wireless infrared LAN nodes.

Evans said that airlifting the portable Unix equipment would cost less than it does to transport current C2 systems. He said users could even carry the portable workstations on commercial flights, leaving cargo space on military transports for other equipment.

The use of wireless LAN nodes also would save hours spent running network cable to computers when an air operations center is being set up, Evans said.

The 150 Unix workstations needed for an air operations center ordinarily require about eight aircraft pallets, Evans said, whereas up to 200 of the portables in suitcases would fit on one pallet.

Battlelab is not settling on a specific product, he said, but is working to design modular systems so that older equipment can be upgraded through the normal replacement process.

Small space

The Reduced Hardware Footprint researchers have been testing the UltraBook from RDI Computer Corp. of Carlsbad, Calif., powered by a 200-MHz Sun Microsystems UltraSparc 1 processor and running SunSoft Solaris 2.6. The UltraBook, which slips neatly into a small suitcase, works with an 18-inch flat-panel monitor from NEC America Inc. of Melville, N.Y., and a portable wireless LAN in Battlelab tests.

An UltraBook costs $7,000 to $20,000 depending on configuration, said Frank Smaldino, general manager of RDI's government division.

Evans said the Reduced Hardware Footprint project contributed to EFX '99, a joint expeditionary experiment that uses actual flight as well as simulations to test new concepts and capabilities in a future war setting.

Another Battlelab project, the Enhanced Linked Virtual Information System, or ELVIS, uses Web technology to bring Global Command and Control System databases to any Air Force user with dial-up, LAN or Secret IP Router Network access.

One of the goals is to make GCCS information available to large numbers of users without lengthy training, said Maj. Luis M. Tirado, ELVIS program manager. The Navy has developed an ELVIS Web browser.

What do you want?

GCCS automates deliberate as well as crisis planning through an integrated set of analytic tools and flexible data transfer.

'We took a tool that was already out there and reconfigured it to Air Force needs,' Tirado said. 'We grabbed a bunch of people and asked them, 'What would you like to see in this technology?' '

ELVIS users can access weather and geographic information, operational pictures, data about weapons and aircraft types, and CIA and military intelligence.

'They could have a link directly to a fighter wing's home page, for instance,' Tirado said. 'The user could click to get the telephone number of the commander or the director of operations.'

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