If we are already swimming in sensors and drowning in data, what can we do to get our heads above water? Wing Commander Paul Hay argues that the key is not a new sensor, platform, or system but improving the management and integration of the information we already collect to create an Internet of ISR.

Our collection management doctrine, processes and networks are based on tried and true Industrial Age concepts. But these may not be the most effective or efficient way to support our war fighters in the Information Age, much less the dynamic environment that we expect to find ourselves operating in the future. A large proportion of the world’s population can access information about anything via the Internet. Yet our systems impose obstacles that keep valuable ISR information from those people that need it the most, whether they be war fighters, analysts, or commanders. Perhaps we should reconsider the way we treat our ISR data and make it discoverable to anyone that has permission to see it.

ADF collection management doctrine is centred on joint collection management processes whereby the myriad of customer collection RFIs are “racked and stacked” and apportioned to discrete collection assets. The assets collect against targets that present on the day, and pass the data to available processing, exploitation and dissemination (PED) assets. Each collection target is analysed and fused with other data as per the customer requirements in the RFI as a discrete task. The end product is sent to the customer in accordance with the dissemination instructions. The system is robust and proven to work for discrete tasks, but is also proven to be ineffective and inefficient at a macro-level.

The system described above is hierarchical, centrally-controlled, and generally delivers product to a limited customer base. The current model is a Soviet-style planned economy. Contrast that system with something we all understand – the Internet. If you want to know something, anything really, just “Google it”. Google will search indexed data across the entire globe and return results in order of relevance. You get the answer you want; but you have absolutely no idea where the server that stores that data is. All you care about is that it is accurate and that you received the result in less than a second. Not only that, but a million other users on the internet could have asked the same question and received the same answer from the single piece of source data. Moreover, the system can suggest other information of relevance to you based on what other people’s searches. Why can’t we do that with our ISR collection to enable many timely decisions instead of just one?

The answer to that may lie in our networks, our ISR doctrine and resourcing, and our ability to trust our collected data and our people. How much of the ISR data collected over time never gets analysed by a person? How much of that data might be of use to someone? How many people out there are completely unaware that a collection mission occurred in their area of interest? Multiple studies have shown that we are already “swimming in sensors and drowning in data.”

Clearly we will never make all data available to everyone, but we should at least know that the data exists and be able to make it available to those that do need it. Our ISR concept should revolve around indexing data as soon as practicable and make it discoverable as early as possible. This may include make aircraft servers accessible while still on task, immediately on landing or when necessary on return to a main operating base. The figure illustrates how such a concept might function.

ISR data made discoverable as early as possible. [Image credit: author]

ISR data made discoverable as early as possible. [Image credit: author]

In a previous post I made mention of how we may better enable emergency services in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief activities. That may be a great place for Defence to start, but we should consider extending that to our war fighting networks. They need to be defendable, the data needs to be trusted, people need the right permissions to access it, and sufficient bandwidth must exist for the customer to ‘pull’ the data. Should we not be doing everything we can to enable the people need data to access data as fast as possible to make a decision?

What if a young platoon commander just needs a picture of what’s on the other side of a river or road before his platoon breaks cover to cross it, rather than a fully annotated image outlining vehicles? Perhaps he trusts his own ability to determine if a vehicle is a sedan or a tank. At the same time as the platoon commander is reviewing this graphic, the system allows an analyst using specialised tools and skills to determine that the T-72 tank in the picture is a decoy. More importantly, the system allows both users to know that the other is looking at the graphic as well, suggest other relevant information, and provides tools for the users to exchange views in real time.

One example of such a system – there are many in use around the globe – is the Defence Science and Technology Group’s Evolutionary Layered ISR Integration Exemplar Architecture (ELIIXAR). This developmental system enables users to run single searches and other services across a variety of ISR data sets. ELIIXAR provides the architecture that allows services, applications, and users to exploit diverse data sets as though they are one. Unifying data sets in this fashion enables the application of automated analytics to exploit the potential of ‘big data.’ It may enable analysts and decision-makers to reverse the current 80/20 split between looking for information and looking at information. Thus, it can dramatically improve the effectiveness and the efficiency of the ISR system.

What if an ELIIXAR-like system was made widely available on land, maritime, and air platforms and ISR data was made discoverable as close to its collection point as possible? No person in the loop, no RFI – just rapid decision-maker access to information they may not have known existed, and certainly did not know how to find.

Whilst this is no doubt a very simplistic view of what is no doubt a technically challenging proposition, the ever-diminishing decision cycles and war fighter needs may drive the solution for us.

Wing Commander Paul Hay is a serving Royal Australian Air Force officer. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.