Military Embedded Systems

The evolution of real-time data-sharing in naval warfare


September 06, 2023

Dan Taylor

Technology Editor

Military Embedded Systems

U.S. Navy photo/Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Riley Gasdia

Naval warfare demands seamless, real-time data sharing across multiple platforms, from aircraft to surface ships to submarines. As conflicts become increasingly complex and fast-paced, the key to winning lies in the ability to communicate critical data in real time.

The technical complexities and security implications of data-sharing of sensitive or critical data across multiple military platforms – especially in naval warfare – can make securing this data an unsurmountable task. However, emerging technologies hold great potential to transform the future naval battlefield.

Shipboard electronics encompass a wide range of technologies designed to enhance various operational aspects of naval vessels. These systems can be broadly categorized into a few key areas: communication, navigation, warfare, and sensor systems.

In an era of multidomain operations, the ability to quickly and accurately exchange data in real time across these diverse systems is not just a technical requirement – it’s a tactical imperative. Real-time data exchange enhances several key facets of naval operations:

  • Situational awareness: Immediate access to real-time data enables shipboard commanders to have a full understanding of the operational theater. This wide-angle information enables better decision-making and resource allocation and can give a significant edge in both defensive and offensive situations.
  • Coordinated action: In a multi-platform environment involving ships, aircraft, and sometimes even satellites, the ability to synchronize actions based on real-time data is crucial for operational success. For example, immediate data exchange between a reconnaissance aircraft and a naval ship could enable the ship to optimize its countermeasures against an incoming threat.
  • Asset optimization: Real-time data can be analyzed to adjust the operations of various onboard systems for optimal performance, whether in the area of fuel consumption, weapons readiness, or sensor accuracy.
  • Scalability and adaptability: Modern naval operations often involve coalitions with partner nations. Real-time data exchange enables seamless interoperability, enabling a collaborative, flexible, and scalable operational approach that can adapt to evolving threats and scenarios.

Real-time exchange of data is not just a technical feature but a critical enabler that can dramatically influence the outcome of naval operations.

Too much data

Achieving real-time data exchange is a difficult proposition in naval operations, largely because there’s so much data out there. Subject matter experts say that one of the principal obstacles to seamless communication between aircraft and naval platforms is the sheer volume of data produced by modern sensors.

“Modern high-definition sensors produce large amounts of data, which is very difficult to exchange between various platforms while running real-time applications,” says Emil Kheyfets, director of military and aerospace business development at Aitech (Chatsworth, California). (Figure 1.)

[Figure 1 | The Aitech A179 AI supercomputer is a SWaP-optimized, GPGPU-based system that enables high computing performance and low power consumption at the edge]

The issue of real-time data-sharing for naval applications is further exacerbated by the “extremely rapid increase in the amount of information produced by manned and unmanned platforms,” says Steven Horsburgh, director of product management in the Tactical Communications Group at Curtiss-Wright (Tewskbury, Massachusetts). These high data volumes demand significant processing power and efficient data pipelines to enable real-time decision-making.

Another critical challenge is the compatibility between various tactical data links (TDLs): “There are a variety of incompatible TDL technologies that have been developed in the past 30 years,” Horsburgh says.

Different aircraft and ships may have distinct TDL capabilities depending on when they were deployed or retrofitted. This variety makes real-time data exchange extremely cumbersome as it often necessitates resorting to “the lowest common denominator or alternate means of communications, such as voice,” Horsburgh adds.

Security concerns

Cybersecurity is another – perhaps one of the most important – factors when discussing and designing for data-sharing for naval operations. Both Kheyfets and Horsburgh raise concerns about the cybersecurity implications of real-time data sharing.

“Cybersecurity is also becoming increasingly complex,” states Horsburgh, adding that “multiple security domains (unclassified, NATO secret, U.S. secret, for example) that inhibit sharing of information” make the situation even more challenging.

The stakes are not just technological but also operational, says Hans Weggeman, field application engineer for aerospace and defense at Wind River (Alameda, California).

“Maintaining stable communications [is difficult due to] many types of extreme external conditions,” Weggeman says. Moreover, the communication protocols, frequencies, and synchronization need to be compatible for seamless data transfer.

Therefore, solving the challenges in real-time data exchange is not merely a technological endeavor but also an operational imperative. Achieving all of this would enable “significantly improved decision-making speed across multiple platforms,” Kheyfets says.

These challenges demonstrate that real-time data exchange is a multifaceted problem that demands a multidisciplinary approach. It is not just about pushing bits faster, but about ensuring those bits are the right bits, reaching the right people, at the right time, in a secure and reliable manner.

The stakes are high, but so too are the rewards: A naval force empowered by seamless, real-time data exchange can adapt more swiftly to ever-changing conflict dynamics, thereby gaining a crucial edge in modern naval warfare.

Promising solutions

One of the most promising solutions is artificial intelligence at the edge (AIAE), which aims to “process most of the data next to the sensors and to path only minimal information between platforms,” Kheyfets says.

Kheyfets’ Aitech is already incorporating advanced processing modules like NVIDIA’s system-on-module (SoM) into small AI-capable solutions.

Meanwhile, Horsburgh is optimistic about modernizing TDLs, such as moving from Link 11 to Link 22 (also known as NATO Improved Link Eleven [NILE]), and using “powerful context-sensitive gateways and intelligent TDL translators” for improved intercommunication. But he points out that while “open standards are making headway on the hardware side of TDLs, software implementation lags primarily due to the broad and complex scenarios that must be accounted for.”

There are other promising technological solutions like time-sensitive networking (TSN) and precision time protocol (PTP) for high-precision synchronization over Ethernet networks, Weggeman says: “These technologies enable deterministic communication and low-latency data exchange, essential for real-time applications.”

Both Horsburgh and Weggeman tout the modular open systems approach (MOSA) and open standards in technology integration as key to future technological solutions. “MOSA and open standards should definitely be used when designing such platforms,” Horsburgh says, with Weggeman adding that MOSA fosters interoperability, flexibility, upgradability, faster integration, and easier collaboration. (Figure 2.)

[Figure 2 ǀ Modularity and open standards in technology integration are key to additional progress in the military arena.]

Solving the puzzle

The integration of these technologies could offer a decisive advantage to combatant commanders at sea.

But the issue of real-time data exchange between aircraft and ship platforms is a multifaceted one, and not an easy puzzle to solve. As Horsburgh notes, the problem is “exacerbated by the tendency to focus on new platforms and their capabilities rather than upgrading existing platforms to effectively communicate with the new platforms.”

Designing future platforms to solve this problem is essential. Kheyfets suggests that “Using AI-at-the-edge technology on all platforms will alleviate data exchange issues.” Horsburgh advises that TDL should be “designed in with compatibility, expandability, and upgradability at the beginning of the project.”

Weggeman recommends integrating “redundant communication systems supporting wired and wireless time synchronization protocols like TSN and PTP.”

Open standards like MOSA play a significant role, according to all experts. Kheyfets says “the use of MOSA and SOSA aligned hardware will help expedite the integration process.”


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