In the theater of operations in Iraq, the U.S. Marines rely on video from unmanned aerial vehicles to warn them as to whats ahead. What used to take as long as an hour to see is now being delivered to troops on the ground in real time.
When a soldier is waiting to see whats over that hill, time crawls.
“Youre out on the front line, and youre waiting for information. Minutes seem like hours. So, an hour must feel like a day,” said Dan White, vice president of engineering at DataPath, of Duluth, Ga., a vendor of portable satellite network solutions for the military and other industries.
Throughout the Iraq theater, the Marines rely on video from UAVs before entering a dangerous environment.
“Its our eyes in the sky,” said Capt. David Joseforsky, a SatCom (satellite communications) project officer for the Marine Corps Systems Command, in Quantico, Va.
Two years ago, getting video to the people who needed it could take as long as 1 hour. When you want your reaction time to be immediate, that obviously wasnt good enough. At that time, the Marines were relying on a video transmission system that required a truck or Humvee that received the video to drive to a location for processing and redistribution, according to White.
Of equal importance to the 1-hour latency issue was that video transmissions were clogging up the Marines existing voice and data network. While in flight, UAVs capture hours of analog video—which is then converted to MPEG-1 video at 800K bps and transmitted via established communications links to various bases and sites.
“[The video] was consuming a good part of the bandwidth that was available. It tied us down in a lot of different areas,” Joseforsky said.
At the same time Joseforsky realized the Marines had a major video distribution problem, DataPath was working with the U.S. Armys communication channel in Iraq, known as the JNN (Joint Network Node).
Even though the Army wasnt working on a video-only solution, Joseforsky said he was intrigued with how DataPath put the Armys IP network together, so he invited the company to submit a bid for the Marines UAV video project.
DataPath could not count on duplicating the Army project. The Marines had additional demands, such as needing video storage and the ability to multicast live UAV video to a variety of qualified theater command points, said White.
DataPath offered a solution that physically separated video from other network traffic and distributed storage across the Iraq theater.
Winning the bid came down to meeting budget requirements and promising to pull the project off in just 60 days, said Joseforsky. According to DataPath officials, the traditional rollout time for a Marines project is 90 to 120 days.
“We knew they were looking for it quickly because it was a problem today, and the solution needed to be available as soon as possible,” White said.
System put to the test
Pulling off the 60-day turnaround required that White and the project team create a test environment to prove that the system could work before they submitted a proposal.
The initial VSWAN (Video and Storage Wide Area Network) rollout was made up of five sites, each with a DataPath ET 2000 Portable unit, a Cisco Systems Cisco IP/TV system, a 6TB storage server and a Web server. The IP/TV system at ground control handles the MPEG compression and feeds the video to the four other VSWAN sites, according to White.
“VSWAN is a parallel network to our existing communications architecture, but its tied in to it at the local area network level,” said Joseforsky.
Video data is removed from general traffic and stays on a separate transmission over the VSWAN router. Once the video data hits a SatCom link at a remote site, it travels through the Marines tactical network router onto a LAN, where transmission of MPEG-4 video at 400K bps is not an issue since the Marines have Ethernet and fiber cables with 100M bps to 1G bps of network capacity, Joseforsky said.
“So, its really part of the network out there, but its really a parallel satellite communications link between all of our links,” Joseforsky said.
When the VSWAN connects to the network, it hits a red router. All classified information, such as UAV video, is routed over a separate network, known as the SIPRNet (Secret Internet Protocol Router Network). Data on the SIPRNet travels over the red routers and receives Type 1 National Security Agency encryption via a Taclane Encryptor (KG-175) device made by General Dynamics C4 Systems, White said.
Getting all that video off the main communications channels was one issue. Storing the video was another concern. Most of the UAVs the Marines have in the Iraq theater fly and record video for 4 hours. Some UAVs, such as the Boeing ScanEagle UAV, can fly for as many as 12 hours at a time, White said.
With all those hours of video, the Marines needed a solution to manage all those gigabytes and terabytes of information.
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The answer for White and his team was to attach a Cisco IP/TV system as part of every DataPath ET 2000 Portable satellite terminal. Each system comprised a Cisco IP/TV 3441 broadcast server with Program Manager 566 and could connect to the SIPRNet via a Cisco Fast Ethernet switch 3750.
MPEG-1 video eats up approximately 500MB for each hour a UAV records. Still, with the Cisco IP/TV system and the 6TB of storage capacity per unit, White said the network is holding a years worth of programming for all the UAVs. There is no redundancy built into the system.
Retrieving the video from the Cisco IP/TV system is like operating a very large TiVo but without the extensive search capability. Joseforsky said the querying of the video-on-demand portion is not as robust as the Marines would like it to be.
“[The database portion is] the one piece we havent completely mastered,” Joseforsky said.
Currently, all the video is saved and indexed in time segments. If the time of an event is known, a user can retrieve and multicast the information.
The Marine Corps Tactical System Support Activity has been looking into building up the system so that it can locate video by time and location, Joseforsky said.
“Were able to more intelligently respond to a situation or more accurately detect targets that we couldnt in the past,” Joseforsky said. “Theres been several occasions where weve seen individuals on the ground or IEDs [improvised exploding devices] being planted. Were able to take that information and use it to our benefit.”
One huge benefit that Joseforsky said he didnt plan on was the ability of the VSWAN to connect to the EPLRS, or Enhanced Position Location Reporting System. Its the Marines line-of-sight data radio network that soldiers in the field use for communications.
Once data from the VSWAN feeds into the SIPRNet, it can be used by any system connected to the network, such as EPLRS. Soldiers about to enter a hostile situation take advantage of this by connecting to EPLRS to see live MPEG-4 UAV video streaming at 100K bps at 10 fps (frames per second).
“The more places we can get the video into the right peoples hands, the more informed those guys on the ground will be,” Joseforsky said.
“When youre out there waiting for this information for situational awareness, I think its extremely important that it gets there as fast as it can so you can make [the] right decisions. So you can go out there and save lives,” White said.
David Spark is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. He can be contacted at [email protected].