Next-gen shipboard electronics enhance data sharing and automation
New design trends for shipboard electronics, such as those onboard the U.S. Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship, focus on enabling enhanced data sharing capabilities and automation, along with a heavy emphasis on being prepared for electronic warfare.
Reducing noise, size, weight, and power demands, as well as improving ruggedization all continue to be key design considerations for shipboard electronics. New requirements are centering on the need to combat electronic warfare on the digital frontier, as well as embracing open architectures and open source systems to enable automation and enhance data sharing in both older platforms and new ones like the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS).
“The U.S. Navy’s lack of the number of ships to deal with all it’s asked to do is really driving onboard systems development,” says John Chehansky, director of business development for GE Intelligent Platforms (www.ge-ip.com) in Charlottesville, Va. “It’s easy to forget that the Navy is much more than a military force; it plays watch-keeper, humanitarian, antipiracy, and antiterrorism roles, in addition to being deployed to conflict zones.”
New ships are also prohibitively expensive, so the Navy is focusing primarily on ways to improve the capabilities of its existing fleet.
“The Navy has built up a mass of legacy systems on each ship,” Chehansky notes. “Historically, for example, deploying a new sensor onboard meant a new communications pipeline dedicated to that sensor.” This resulted in far too many computers and communications pathways onboard.
A good indication of the Navy’s future goals can be found within the description of the Office of Naval Research’s Integrated Topsides (InTop) program, which as Chehansky points out, includes keywords such as “integrated,” “multifunctional,” “modular,” “scalable,” “open architecture,” and “software-defined functionality.”
The InTop program aims “to bring sensors for radar and infrared [IR], which today are used in individual functionalities, together via high-speed digital communications,” Chehansky says. “This would address another Navy problem – struggling to bring all of its data together to provide meaningful information.”
Data sharing, open source, and the cloud
One of the Navy’s top goals is to move away from “stovepiped” networks, which includes PCs and electronics, not just Ethernet cables and how the network is wired together.
“This is based on a desire to be able to improve data sharing across networks to get a better sense of the big picture by pulling together data from several areas that haven’t necessarily been combined in the past, which, in turn, is driving data consolidation and tying into cloud architectures to an extent to support it,” explains Isaac Porche, senior engineer for RAND Corp. in Santa Monica, Calif. (www.rand.org).
The term “cloud” tends to be interpreted as consolidating servers, but it can also mean using a distributed cloud to share data. “Using a distributed cloud just needs to be done in a way that makes sense in terms of interoperability and, of course, it must be secure. It definitely opens a new can of worms about how to share data at different classification levels easily, while avoiding data spillage,” Porche explains.
There’s also a big push toward open source options, particularly “in the cloud with OpenStack, because license fees are killing everyone,” says Porche. “But open source is easier said than done. The desire is there, and we’re beginning to see it in the database world. In the past you paid your Oracle database license fees, but now open source database concepts are looking more attractive.”
This is an area “the weapons systems folks will be watching closely, because they won’t want to sit on an IP network with latencies,” Porche adds. “While consolidation is intended to reduce costs, the tradeoff with security is still being debated, so it can only be taken as far as issues with performance and security assurances will allow. There are performance and security requirements that can’t ever be weakened.”
The military, in general, “is a big proponent of open source because it provides improved flexibility, but it also brings security concerns along with it,” concurs Bob Kopas, vice president of military programs for Z Microsystems in San Diego (www.zmicro.com). “Any software that goes into Navy systems must be certified and, as you begin to use open source code, it becomes more difficult to guarantee security.”
So a new focus is to find ways to “secure the data separately with all of the proper permissions and security differences within the same store, so one person with the right credentials can pull the data to develop a bigger picture with it and improve efficiency,” Porche says.
Overall, embedded computing is also “playing a huge role in making it easier for crews to make more sense of the vast amounts of data available to them,” Chehansky notes.
In terms of embedded systems, “we’re seeing a continued realization about the value of ruggedization for longevity of systems,” Kopas says. “The driving factor for servers is still processing power, which is being driven by the commercial market. Demand is also increasing for storage capability and video ingestion/manipulation capabilities.”
Ruggedization continues to be a key design trend, with strong interest in higher-resolution 4k display panels, which is the leading technology in the commercial market, according to Kopas (see Figure 1).
“We’re also seeing increasing interest in real-time enhanced video built into displays, because operating in maritime environments often involves visual degradations such as fog and haze, and even dust in the waters like those in the Persian Gulf,” he adds.
The Littoral Combat Ship and open architectures
Engineers at Lockheed Martin in Bethesda, Md. (www.lockheedmartin.com) leveraged open architectures and more efficient data sharing in the electronic systems onboard the LCS Freedom variant, a stealthy surface combatant designed to be a flexible and upgradable asset for the U.S. Navy’s fleet. This technology enables each LCS to be “manned with a 50-sailor crew, which is about a quarter of the crewmembers on similarly sized ships,” says Joe North, vice president of Littoral Ships and Systems for Lockheed Martin. The LCS encompasses three key mission packages: Antisubmarine Warfare, Mine Countermeasures, and Surface Warfare. (For more on the mission packages, see sidebar 2.)
The LCS Freedom variant relies on open architecture to enable rapid and cost-effective technology insertion and spiral development capability, according to Lockheed Martin. LCSs are networked to share tactical information with other naval aircraft, ships, submarines, and joint and coalition units to provide the right people with the information they need quickly and efficiently.
The ship’s COMBATSS-21 software system is combined with a “Total Ship Computing Environment” to provide hardware and software interfaces for quick integration of new capabilities such as weapons, sensors, and communication links. COMBATSS-21 provides the backbone of the self-defense suite, integrating radar, electro-optical/ infrared cameras, gunfire control system, countermeasures, and short-range air missiles, according to Lockheed Martin.
Automation is another key part of LCS design, largely intended to support the ship’s minimally manned crew. “This includes an advanced combat management system, remote vehicles to keep crewmembers out of mine fields, a ship system health monitoring capability, and laser-based fluid monitoring and machinery control systems,” North says. “Using advanced automation, the LCS can accommodate current and future technological advances.”
Three examples of the automation technologies found in the ship include its plant automation, ship system, and fluid monitoring systems.
“It’s exciting to see how much automation is helping the crew,” North says. “On a ship’s bridge, for example, normally 10 or more sailors monitor the consoles that track all of the ship’s systems on traditional Navy ships. On LCS, you have one or two sailors monitoring and controlling all of the ship’s complex systems from a single location.”