Trends in securing data comms for the new era of unmanned flight

On January 18, 1911, the age of naval aviation was born when Eugene Ely, flying a Curtiss Pusher biplane rigged with arresting hooks on its axle, performed the first shipboard landing aboard the USS Pennsylvania in San Francisco Bay. A little more than 100 years later, on May 14, 2013, a new era of unmanned naval aviation took flight with the first successful launching of a drone, the X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS), from the USS George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier. (Watch the U.S. Navy’s video of this historic flight: www.youtube.com/watch?v=hknsbswLFwo.)

Because of their ability to provide persistent surveillance while eliminating the need to put our warfighters in harm’s way, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) continue to grow in importance. As these platforms proliferate in number and in deployed missions around the world, various technology trends of interest to vendors of rugged embedded systems have emerged, several of which revolve around the need for security: There is increased demand for highly networked UAS infrastructures to enable any UAV to exist on the network, streaming relevant data while providing support for multiple securing enclaves for control and data transfer. On the ground segment front, the trends indicate specialization for control and gathering of highly sensitive data along with the ability to support wider variety and quantity of UAVs simultaneously. To reduce burden on downlink bandwidth, much of the image/data post-processing and relevant feature extraction will be preprogrammed by the user and only relevant end result will be streamed down for bandwidth conservation and timely reaction by the user. Still, the need for security prevails.

Trends enable UAS security

System designers of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UASs) – the full support architecture that contains the UAV, ground segment, communication infrastructure, and data processing capability that allow full control and utilization of the technology – know that one of their biggest challenges is in the arena of secure UAV command, control, and communications. There is increasing demand for control compatibility with other UAS ground stations, the ability for the UAV to directly communicate with various ground/air support in the area of operation, regardless of whether they share the same UAS architecture. It’s also important to ensure that there is sufficient bandwidth to provide secure downlinks. With an increasing number of UAVs streaming high-throughput data simultaneously, it’s critical to ensure the secure, timely availability of relevant/post-processed data.

From a technology trend perspective, we are seeing significant interest in using data guard/cross-domain technology to provide information assurance while transferring data between different security domains.

The desire for greater interoperability between UASs is also increasing interest in using open architecture hardware and software (OS, BSP, drivers, and applications) to enable more generic, open source-based ground command and control stations while protecting highly sensitive/classified data from unauthorized access. Additionally, UAS systems designers are looking toward open source software and tools as a solution, as problems often arise from using applications software – which requires third party licensing, support, and availability – for critical and proprietary technologies in the ground segment of the UAS. But to take full advantage of this solution, the UAV’s streaming hardware and data need to be compatible with the open source-based application being used on the receiving platform. What’s more, the UAV hardware has to be able to segregate relevant and authorized sections of the data before it gets sent to an open source ground segment in order to protect classified sections of gathered data.

Starting at the rugged board level and ending with the fully integrated system, vendors including Curtiss-Wright Controls Defense Solutions are providing increased hardware-level convergence of information assurance security features to protect critical data, combined with new operating systems and BSPs that incorporate sophisticated data guard features to effectively secure data communication (Figure 1).

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Figure 1: Curtiss-Wright’s COTS-based Sensor/Payload Management Unit deployed on leading UAVs
(Click graphic to zoom by 1.9x)

Val Zarov Director – Program Management Curtiss-Wright Controls Defense Solutions www.cwcdefense.com