Warfighters at the tactical edge are generally required to communicate with base facilities in order to report and retrieve new information about their locations, missions, and potential threats. With current communications technology, this critical operational content is not always immediately accessible nor distributable for warfighters who are outside of the range of communication of their bases.
Squads of Soldiers or Marines on patrol in remote forward locations often don’t have the luxury of quickly sharing current intelligence information and imagery on their mobile devices, because they can’t access a central server, says DARPA. Troops frequently have to wait until they’re back at camp to download the latest updates. In the meantime, mission opportunities may erode because the information needed at the tactical edge isn’t immediately available.
DARPA’s Content-Based Mobile Edge Networking (CBMEN) program aims to make each squad member’s mobile device function as a server, so content is generated, distributed and maintained at the tactical edge where it’s needed. As long as troops are within communication range—whether by radio, cellular, Wi-Fi or other radio frequency devices—CBMEN software automatically replicates and shares updates, causing the tactical cloud to grow and diminish as users move in and out of range of each other. Any connected collection of warfighters can store and share information in many places right at the tactical edge, making the system tolerant of communications disruptions. In essence, CBMEN creates secure frontline cloud storage services that provide content with decreased latency and increased availability.
Emily C. LeBlanc and others from Applied Informatics Group Drexel University Philadelphia, PA, considered a scenario in which a platoon of dismounted warfighters is carrying out patrolling operations in a remote region. A fireteam leader of a squad uses his connected mobile device to snap a photo of a suspicious object and identifies it as a potential explosive device outside a remote village and attempts to share this photo with members of the entire platoon and commanders and intelligence teams at command posts. DARPA’s Content-Based Mobile Edge Networking (CBMEN) program allows the members of the squad enable their mobile devices to utilize tactical mobile ad hoc networks (MANETs) to exchange this content and information amongst platoon and squad members where fixed network infrastructures (e.g. satelite or mobile cellular networks) do not exist.
A key factor that enables CBMEN is the tremendous computing power available in current mobile devices. “There’s more computing power and memory in my smartphone than the supercomputer I used in college,” Gremban said. “With 64 gigabytes of storage in a single smartphone, a squad of nine troops could have more than half a terabyte (500 GB) of cloud storage. CBMEN taps into that huge capacity.”
DARPA successfully field-tested CBMEN software loaded on Android-based smartphones and Army Rifleman Radios at Fort A.P. Hill, Va., marking the completion of Phase 1 of the program.
Creating a Secure, Private Internet and Cloud at the Tactical Edge
CBEMN provide an alternative approach to the top down focus of most military networks, which provide content over a common operating environment from the strategic to tactical level. Unfortunately, the tactical level is still a severely constrained communications environment, and often when deployed, networks may not have connectivity to higher headquarters and servers needed to provide the latest updates from other units in the area.
CBMEN turns this world upside down and starts the content sharing at the individual Soldier or Marine level. If a set of radios or cell phones are disconnected from higher headquarters units, the individuals can still generate and share critical content on their own, significantly improving their common situational awareness and the ability to carry out their mission. This concept moves past the Internet’s “hub-and-spoke” paradigm of requiring point-to-point communications to first go through a central server.
CBMEN program and platform aim to foster tactical edge networking and information systems by providing content discovery, distribution, and security services directly within those networks. It eliminates the delays, brittleness, inefficiency, and expense incurred by traditional systems’ reliance on reachback to upper-echelon information services by enabling individual warfighters’ and tactical edge units’ mobile devices to locate and share content distributed over ad-hoc networks with limited infrastructure, power, and bandwidth.
“CBMEN may not sound revolutionary, because people take server access for granted when cell towers, fiber-optic connections and 4G/LTE networks are so widely available worldwide,” said Keith Gremban, DARPA program manager. “But when that infrastructure is not available, CBMEN technology enables real-time information sharing where it hasn’t been possible before. CBMEN puts secure, private collaboration and cloud storage in your pocket.”
The field tests proved the concept works and highlighted the potential benefits of real-time information sharing. At one point in the testing, two squads on foot patrol came within communication range of each other. One squad had information about a simulated person of interest that the other squad was seeking. The CBMEN software, working in the background on the troops’ mobile devices, automatically transferred the information from the first squad to the other, without the second squad having to ask for it. As the second squad entered a building where the person of interest was, the squad used that information to immediately identify and apprehend its target.
The testing also identified areas that need further development such as enhancing security and improving efficiency of information exchange, which will be the focus of the next phase of the program. The goal is to reduce the number of transmissions required, which would save power, and to also reduce the bandwidth needed.
Beyond supporting troops on the frontlines, CBMEN technology may also be useful for civilian applications, especially disaster response, where the established communication infrastructure is unavailable or destroyed. Like forward-deployed troops with no established communications infrastructure, firefighters, police, medical personnel, National Guard members and others responding to a major disaster could quickly share imagery and vital information amongst each other.
Rapid gains in device capabilities have rendered mobile networking ubiquitous in the mainstream commercial realm. Tactical edge applications however continue to lag far behind, in large part because the cellular, Internet, and data center infrastructure enabling commercial systems simply isn’t viable in a military setting. Requirements for rapid deployment, shifting areas of operation, and disruption tolerance are all poorly supported by approaches based on commercial assumptions of stable deployments and ever-increasing connectivity. Carrying these assumptions to the tactical edge results in the current status quo of brittle, stove piped information systems reliant on constrained reachback links—both confining and requiring information flow along the chain of command.
The CBMEN platform features several novel extensions to the content-based networking paradigm. It extends the Haggle peer-to-peer content sharing middleware to implement new techniques for:
- Routing and forwarding on disrupted mobile networks based on connectivity modeling and network coding;
- A highly expressive content advertisement and querying-enabling discovery and collaboration on a distributed, tactical edge Semantic Web;
- A robust, fine grained security and access control via functional encryption mechanisms.
- Distributed content location and sharing over a mobile ad-hoc network on Android devices.
- Applied knowledge engineering to the command and control domain.
- Collaboration with high-profile companies including SAIC, ISI, SRI, BBN, LGS, and Harris.
“Content sharing, starting at the tactical edge, is changing the world in the way information can be shared for warfighters who need it most,” Gremban said.
Bellerophon Mobile has subcontracted with Drexel University for the second phase of the Content-Based Mobile Edge Networking (CBMEN) program for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Together, Drexel and Bellerophon are providing expressive, ontology-based metadata description and querying for advertising and discovering content within CBMEN tactical edge networks.
Bellerophon Mobile is responsible primarily for development of the Semantic Web (OWL+SPARQL) inference engine incorporated into the core of the CBMEN stack, as well as an ontology-based rapid tagging interface for quickly describing content on mobile devices. Drexel University’s Applied Informatics Group is developing and maintaining military domain ontologies used to represent content and supporting information such as mission and force structure.
Military Ontologies for Information Dissemination at the Tactical Edge
DARPA’s Content-Based Mobile Edge Networking (CBMEN) program aims to enable ad hoc communication among smart devices which are in range of one another. The smart-device equipped warfighters may publish about or request information about mission content such as observation reports, updated orders, or mission-time imagery, write Emily C. LeBlanc and others from Applied Informatics Group Drexel University Philadelphia, PA.
Each piece of content in the system is tagged with semantically rich metadata that can be queried and reasoned over in an intelligent way as to return the most relevant available results. In order to tag mission content in a meaningful way as described, we require an intuitive and well-structured representation of the military domain.
Authors presented their methodology used to develop the Tactical Heterogenous Ontology Representation (THOR). THOR’s ontology is a doctrine-base military domain representation that models a wide landscape of essential concepts and relationships described in field manuals, joint publications, and scenarios developed with subject matter experts. The ontology provides the terms, concepts, and relationships necessary to describe critical mission content, thus enabling intelligent reasoning over dynamic mission data in order to increase situational awareness for warfighters
DARPA’s CBMEN program leverages concepts from content-based networking, knowledge representation, and reasoning in order to enable information dissemination at the tactical edge.
In content-based networking (Jacobson et al. 2009), the files (or content) of the system are addressed by name rather than by their host machine location. Content for the mobile device-equipped warfighter is in the form of files such as imagery, map tiles, orders, and documents. Rather than exchanging the content itself, the nodes within CBMEN will exchange metadata describing available content. If the metadata description of content is relevant to the warfighter, then CBMEN system will deliver the binary files to their device for consumption.