Senior Airman Stephen Wade spent four years as a Tech Controller with the United States Air Force engineering networks that disseminated video from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV).
After leaving the service, he went on to perform network upgrades for the Federal Bureau of Investigations before returning to the Air Force as a contractor to support the Air Force Special Operations Command arm of the UAV network. He currently is a network engineer at Sandia National Laboratories, engineering networks that support national security.
Below he answers a few questions about his time in the Air Force working on drones.
What's your background in networking?
My background in networking is primarily drawn from my 4 years of service in the Air Force. When I went through the 3C2X1 training at Keesler Air Force Base (AFB) we were given the title of Tech Controllers. We had classes in everything ranging from basic electronic principles all the way up through advanced routing and switching.
After graduating through the tech school I got stationed at Langley AFB and was kept there for all 4 of my enlisted years. There was a shortage of tech controllers that managed the UAV video dissemination, so they held all the new tech controllers there indefinitely.
While I was there I learned all I could about multicast networking, ATM networking, bulk/serial cryptography devices, and any other networking related things I could. We had a multi-million dollar lab that we spent hours configuring and reconfiguring that mirrored the production network.
What have you been doing since you left the Air Force?
After I got out of the Air Force I became a contractor and moved out West to Cannon AFB to do support for the AFSOC/SOCOM arm of the UAV network. I started out my time at Cannon doing GCS (Ground Control Station) setup, configuration, and maintenance. I learned the GCS network and how the pilots and sensors are able to control the UAV and the specific equipment and configurations needed to pilot and control the UAV and all of it's cameras/sensors.
I eventually moved to the video distribution part of the AFSOC network, helping to maintain and add additional lines when they came in, routing and disseminating the video to different units across the US. Before I left we had the chance to upgrade the network to handle HD distribution.
How did you get involved with UAV's? Is there a particular AFSC that manages the UAV network? Did you know you would be working with UAV's when you joined the Air Force?
When I first joined the Air Force I did not know that I would be working with UAV's, in fact, I didn't know I would be working with UAV's until I got to Langley.
I did know what the tech controller career field was all about before enlisting though, so I knew what area I wanted to throw myself into, and enlisted with that in my specific contract.
I'm not sure what AFSC would be the tech controller equivalent at this point, the last I heard they merged a bunch of AFSCs, and got rid of some others, and the AFSC of 3C2x1 no longer exists, but there is an equivalent under a new AFSC which I THINK falls under the 3Dxxx field.
What kind of capabilities do the UAV's offer in terms of communications and battlefield intelligence that would not be available through traditional communications infrastructure?
As far as the UAV capabilities go, they are quite advanced from where they began many years ago. While I was at Cannon AFB the powers that be wanted a heads-up 3d display that would show a commander there at Cannon exactly where all their UAVs were overlayed on a Google Earth application window, the commander could click on any of the UAVs on the screen and begin to see the video that the pilots and sensors could see, they could then send operational flight info and intelligence to other analysts or units across the US. This allowed quick sharing and dissemination of information to units both here in the states or overseas on the ground. The UAVs themselves of course use a Lynx SAR (Synthetic Apeture Radar) this allows them to see through clouds, fog, smoke, etc. And also allows high resolution stills to be taken under adverse conditions.
The Air Force was also testing a joint capability network, which allowed the F-22 Raptor to share and exchange information with a UAV to allow support between the Raptor and the UAV in the field. We set this up using stationary Radar domes for the networking equipment, and the short range (<25 miles) microwave shots. Although this was just an exercise, I'm sure this has been put to use since the experiment, and has seen real world combat action.
The UAVs that we supported were the MQ-1 and MQ-9, and while operationally they were very similar, as far as the network was concerned it was identical, and as long as the UAV can send its video and flight information over a network, we could support it and distribute that information to any of our units in the world.
Give us an idea of what your network basically looks like.
Network wise we would establish link over a specific RF prior to the crew showing up, this would allow C2 (Command & Control) priority over the link, even if video is lost, the C2 link can still send the emergency mission coordinates to the GCS and it will automatically return home. Once link was established the networking team would ensure the correct multicast ACL was being applied, this would ensure that only certain units would receive the video feed, and would also allow us to ensure that the ATM path was correct.
The basic network layout is...
HD Video stream -> RF -> local SATCOM -> GeoSAT -> Stateside SATCOM -> ATM backbone -> IP distribution
There are additional stops along the way, but that is the gist of it.
What kind of protocols/technology do you use in the operations of drones that would be recognizable to a more traditional enterprise network engineer? Or maybe a better question would be what technologies do you use that a typical enterprise engineer wouldn't be familiar with?
An average engineer would recognize just about everything that we use to carry the video and air handler circuits, with the exception of the ATM configuration, and possibly the encryption devices. The ATM backbone is an aging technology, and is getting more and more difficult to support since it isn't being made anymore. The encryption technology is used quite often in the military, but an average engineer might not be familiar with them. Also for the local video distribution in our POC (Predator Operations Center) we used a LOT of video routers, content processors (for the conversion of raw video to MPEG), and audio converters so the pilots/sensors could talk with the analysts and supervisors.
You mentioned the system recently upgraded to HD video - what are some of challenges you faced with that project?
The HD upgrade itself was somewhat difficult due to the fact that there was NO available downtime. The pilots and missions themselves often times ran for 12-16 hours, and there was usually just enough time to configure the circuit for the next mission, and that was it. We rarely had time to implement many changes simply because there wasn't more than an hour or two of downtime between missions. Eventually we found a way to integrate and upgrade sections of the network to allow the HD upgrade to happen while still supporting the SD video feeds concurrently.
Are there any plans to move away from an ATM backbone to an all IP network to disseminate video?
Before I left there were many suggestions regarding the move away from ATM to an IP based backbone, the only issue of course is security. Even with the hardware encryption there is still a question of reliability with an all IP based network, the ATM backbone is a proven technology when it comes to latency vs encryption overhead vs reliability. The ATM backbone seems able to find the perfect balance of all three of those issues.
I know that DISA (Defense Information Systems Agency - the commercial carrier for this UAV network and many DoD networks) was planning to cut off their ATM support sometime in the near future, which was essentially the tipping point to get HD going over the network.
What civilian applications of this technology do you imagine we will be seeing in the next 10 years?
I think we're already beginning to see how this DoD based system is creeping into civilian programs. The border patrol is the most recent example I can think of, I believe that Lockheed Martin won that contract and have been using drones on the mexican border. I know the FAA is supposed to clear UAV for use over American airspace within the next year or so, which leads me to believe that police stations will be using them in some capacity once they see how useful they are. With the UAS platform expanding out to the foreseeable future with the Air Force, and things like supersonic flight in the near future this is a huge field to be in, and one that will only continue to grow in the future.
Advice for someone who wants to be a UAV Drone Network Engineer?
If someone wants to be a drone engineer I would advise you to get a security clearance and a general networking background. If not that route, learn multicast routing inside and out, and learn about bulk encryption devices. If you can find a lab or some cheap refurb ATM equipment that would also be a great way to get an inside step on getting a job as a UAV network engineer.
Drone related links: