storm damage


After Sandy hit, Coast Guard comm got ... better

‘Game changer’ is one of those phrases that’s become a cliché for a reason. Often attached to new technologies, but seldom used correctly, it’s seen more as marketing hyperbole than a realistic description of what technologies actually provide.

Project at a Glance

Project: TRIDENT (Tactical Routing of Information over a Deployable and Extensible NeTwork)

Office/division/team: U.S. Coast Guard First District

Technology: Mobile Ad Hoc Network (MANET), using standard TCP/IP and advanced encryption, and incorporating Cisco routers and Land Mobile Radio servers.

Time to implement: Six months

Cost: Less than $50,000

TRIDENT (Tactical Routing of Information over a Deployable and Extensible NeTwork) could be one of the deserving few. Thrown into the mix almost as a desperation heave during the response to Superstorm Sandy in October 2012 — when the Coast Guard struggled to resurrect communications in the ports of New York and New Jersey — it quickly became a star.

Not only did the TRIDENT team get regular communications up and running within hours of deployment, its mesh network delivered better performance than the systems that had been operating there before the storm. And it was all produced with equipment that fit into a small rental vehicle and cost less than $50,000, peanuts compared with the much larger and far more cumbersome systems the Coast Guard usually uses in disaster response.

When the regular response teams came in after Sandy with their large trucks filled with $2.5 million of satellite communications systems, they were only able to get 256 kilobits/sec throughput, said Lt. Ryan Kowalske, who headed the TRIDENT development team at the Coast Guard First District in Boston. That allowed just a handful of workstations to get up and running, not nearly enough for the more than 150 people who were needed to manage the ports and waterways.

The Coast Guard had no option but to close ports, putting at risk $500 million of daily commerce that flowed through New York and New Jersey, not to mention potentially extending the regional shortages of fuel and other goods that were badly needed for the response efforts.

But with TRIDENT, “the 20 [megabits/sec] communications pipeline we established was actually better than the one they had before the storm,” Kowalske said. “Even with all of the security they had to overlay on it, given that it was carrying Coast Guard data, they were still seeing faster speeds, and people were able to look right at their workstations as if nothing happened.”

As a result, the ports reopened five days ahead of when they would otherwise have been able to.

TRIDENT is the result of a process that began when Kowalske wrote a white paper outlining how the Coast Guard could implement “resilient capabilities” that would support disaster response. Up until then, getting the Coast Guard’s various systems and radios to swap data securely with other organizations — and provide for real-time situational awareness during fast-changing events — wasn’t possible.

A mesh network — formally known as a mobile ad-hoc network, or MANET — was not the only technology considered, said Kowalske, who has experience with MANET development efforts by the Defense Department and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. However, matching technologies to Coast Guard needs was not simple.

“The main problem is that we work in austere environments, whether at sea or in disaster response,” he said.

It wasn’t until he came across a MANET built by a company called Persistent Systems, which had already been selected for another DOD program, that Kowalske realized he had something he could base TRIDENT on. The company’s Wave Relay encryption capabilities and the geographical performance ranges would make TRIDENT feasible.

Other technologies had operational ranges of no more than a mile or two, 10 at the most, he said. But the Persistent Systems technology allowed for communications 30 miles out at sea, from a Coast Guard cutter to a small boat, “and we’ve actually managed to achieve 105 miles from land to aircraft,” Kowalske said.

Another big plus was that Wave Relay uses pure TCP/IP and not a proprietary protocol, so the TRIDENT team could also use Cisco routers to create secure virtual private network tunnels and connect disparate networks. In a demonstration of TRIDENT’s capabilities, an aircraft over Boston was able to talk to a cutter in Tampa, Fla., in real-time. And, because it’s “pure Layer 2” IP that allows TRIDENT users to bring in fixed infrastructure IP-based solutions and also run those in a tactical environment, Kowalske said.

Before TRIDENT was operational, getting video or sensor data from the field back to senior-level decision-makers or technical experts often depended on someone hand-carrying a camera or data from a ship to shore, and analysis would happen hours after the event.

TRIDENT allows for a single tactical network over which everyone can see full motion video, collaborate using Voice or Radio over IP, share data files and see real-time position updates. It intelligently connects with the best network backhauls available, be they traditional wired, satellite or 3G/4G connections, or all three combined.

TRIDENT has been through various demonstrations, but had its first operational test during War of 1812 bicentennial celebrations in Boston during the week leading up to July 4. It supported joint operations in the port there, giving local and federal agencies the ability to share real-time tactical information.

It also didn’t harm TRIDENT’s chances that this successful demonstration happened in front of most of the Coast Guard’s top brass. Even though there was still a lot of resistance from some people, particularly the information security folks, its value was apparent. When the Captain of Port for N.Y. and N.J. called his headquarters in October to say that the regular disaster contingencies after Sandy were not working, Kowalske said, “that’s when I got the call to go down with the gear and see what I could do to help.”

TRIDENT’s capabilities at least proved popular with some of those “boots on the ground” who were tasked with getting communications up and running.

Miguel Uribarri, a Coast Guard IT technician, was based at the Sandy Hook, N.J., facility during Sandy and volunteered to do emergency communications restoration in New York using satellite networks, which is “pretty much our standard equipment,” he said. He was there within 24 hours, but only managed to get a few workstations working, and wasn’t able to get any overall connectivity for the New York area through Verizon’s Manhattan exchange.

“That’s when I started working with [Kowalske]. And from the moment we started deploying the Wave Relay equipment until the time I left, we had restored 65 percent of the bandwidth capabilities normally allocated to New York,” Uribarri said. “We were able to provide all the users’ network capabilities with just the (MANET).”

For a hands-on technician, the equipment is “leaps and bounds above what other things can do,” he said. It takes very few man-hours required to get circuits back up and operational, and it covers a much greater area. You can get video on the network just by putting a node on an aircraft, he said.

“It’s like a Swiss Army knife,” he said. “Some of the equipment we have running now requires massive space and battery banks that take up an entire wall. Wave Relay requires equipment that can fit into a suitcase that can be pre-configured and deployed almost immediately.”

TRIDENT is now being deployed elsewhere in the Coast Guard to support daily operations.

But it’s not for everyone. The Air Force, for example, provided some of its facilities to help in the development of TRIDENT, but it would have problems fitting in with many Air Force requirements.

“It would need to be developed further,” said Darin Leahy, chief of the Air Force Architecture and Standards Branch at Hanscom Air Force Base. “It’s for mesh networks using open-source software, and we don’t do open-source data, as we encrypt everything.”

However, he said, given its capabilities, “it’s an unbelievable concept,” and one that could well fit into a forward-deployed environment in the Air Force, especially for relief work. For those rapid-reaction types of activities, he said, “it’s in our toolbox.”

Another factor helping to drive TRIDENT toward becoming a Coast Guard program of record in the next two years is that it’s much cheaper than the legacy DOD solutions that the Coast Guard is also considering. Traditionally, it’s the cost of satellite-based networking that has kept the Coast Guard from doing as much as it wants to with communications, Kowalske said, particularly in emergencies. But with TRIDENT, people are being pushed to try a lot of innovative things.

“I think this is the first time that people have left their comfort zone to see what this could do,” he said. “I heard a commander recently talking to a vendor about this technology, and he equated it to the effect night vision goggles had, and what a difference that made. That surprised me, because even I was a skeptic, at first.”

Other agencies and services are starting to beat a path to the Coast Guard’s door to see how iTRIDENT might work for them, Kowalske said. Now they have seen what’s possible, such as being able to push full-motion video from the field to an admiral’s iPad in Washington, D.C. And that’s sparking a fair amount of pride.

“It’s one of the few times in history that the Coast Guard has been out front and that we have other services coming to us,” he said.

Read about more 2013 GCN Awards winners.

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