Tag Archives: maintenance

Project Tango and Communicating the Problem

Commercial 3D Imaging in Naval Maintenance and Repair

As with most things in life, a frequent hindrance to quickly fixing degraded systems aboard naval vessels is the inability to effectively communicate – in this case describing the problem to support facilities, sometimes thousands of miles away. Compounding the frustration is how long it can take to ship a solution part (perhaps soon alleviated by local additive manufacturing hubs) or send a team to perform the repair work, before realizing the disconnect between what the problem is and what the support facility thinks it is. Fortunately, the advent of cheap digital cameras, now nearly ubiquitous in cell phones, has eased the effort as photos now accompany many of the requests.

Tango and Cache: 3D rendering of a room captured by Google's Project Tango
Tango and Cache: 3D rendering of a room captured by Google’s Project Tango

A further aid may well soon be at hand. According to the Wall Street Journal, Google plans in June to begin production of a tablet with “two back cameras, infrared depth sensors and advanced software that can capture precise three-dimensional images of objects,” or “to create a kind of three-dimensional map of its user’s surroundings.”

Mobile 3D imaging technology is not new. We here at CIMSEC have previously discussed it in the context of potential tactical naval applications, such as for use by VBSS boarding teams either in a “recon” mode to gain a better picture of their tactical environment, or a “record” mode for later examination, intel exploitation, and lessons learned. Additionally, scientists have earlier noted that sound waves can be used to recreate a 3D representation of a cell phone user’s environment, with intriguing implications for security and spyware. Laser scanners – the peripheral of choice for generating 3D-rendered computer images for 3D printer files – may offer a similar and higher-fidelity solution, at least for the time being.

The advantage with Google’s Project Tango, as the initiative is known, is that a commercial behemoth integrating the technology into a widely used and compact mobile platform makes it much more likely to be available cheaply, and for developers to speed up the cycle of refining applications. Further, the ability to portray a degraded component in situ or the environment in question rather than as a standalone piece is an advantage over most of today’s laser scanners (although some companies have in fact marketed laser scanners as environment mappers).

The normal caveats about this being an immature technology that has yet to prove itself in the real world apply. But, if a picture of a problem is worth a thousand words, a 3D image may soon be worth at least much to the Navy’s repair reach-back commands.

LT Scott Cheney-Peters is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve and the former editor of Surface Warfare magazine. He is the founder and vice president of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC), a graduate of Georgetown University and the U.S. Naval War College, and a member of the Truman National Security Project’s Defense Council.

The Full Cost of Remote Diagnostics

Last week an article came out about state-sponsored hacking that had nothing to do Edward Snowden or the NSA. Bloomberg News detailed the ongoing hacking of U.S. defense contractor QinetiQ. Two paragraphs in the piece particularly struck me:

“The [China-based] spies also took an interest in engineers working on an innovative maintenance program for the Army’s combat helicopter fleet. They targeted at least 17 people working on what’s known as Condition Based Maintenance, which uses on-board sensors to collect data on Apache and Blackhawk helicopters deployed around the world, according to experts familiar with the program.

The CBM databases contain highly sensitive information including the aircrafts’ individual PIN numbers, and could have provided the hackers with a view of the deployment, performance, flight hours, durability and other critical information of every U.S. combat helicopter from Alaska to Afghanistan, according to Abdel Bayoumi, who heads the Condition Based Maintenance Center at the University of South Carolina.”

A remote diagnostic system: safe and secure...
        A remote diagnostic system: safe and secure…

While it’s unclear whether the hackers succeeded in accessing or exploiting the data, it is clear that they saw the information as valuable. And rightly so – systems such as condition based maintenance, remote diagnostics, and remote C2 systems are designed to reduce the workload burden on front-line “warfighters”, or the logistics burden on their platforms, by shifting the location of the work to be done elsewhere. This can also facilitate the use off-site processing power for more in-depth analysis of historical data sets and trends for such things as predicting part failures. The Army is not alone in pursuing CBM. The U.S. Navy has integrated CBM into its Arleigh Burke-class DDG engineering main spaces, meaning “ship and shore engineers have real maintenance data available, in real time, at their fingertips.”

However, the very information that enables this arrangement and the benefits it brings also creates risk. Every data link or information conduit created for the benefit of an operator means a point of vulnerability that can be targeted, and potentially exploited – whether revealing or corrupting potentially crucial information. This applies not only for CBM, but more dramatically for the C2 circuits for unmanned systems. I’m by no means the first to point out that CBM, et al, means tempting targets. UAV hacking has garnered a great deal of attention in the past year, but the Bloomberg article confirms an active interest exists in hijacking the enabling access of lower profile access points.

This raises several questions for CBM and remote diagnostics, not least of which is “is it worth it?” At what point does the benefit derived from the remote access become outweighed by the risks of that access being compromised? Given the sophistication of adversary hacking, should planners operate from the starting assumption that the data will be exploited and limit the extent of its use to non-critical systems? If operating under this assumption, should “cyber defense” attempts to protect this information be kept to a minimum so as not to incur unnecessary additional costs? Or should the resources be devoted to make the access as secure as the C2 systems allowing pilots to fly drones in Afghanistan from Nevada?

Scott is a former active duty U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer, and the former editor of Surface Warfare magazine. He now serves as an officer in the Navy Reserve and civilian writer/editor at the Pentagon. Scott is a graduate of Georgetown University and the U.S. Naval War College.

Note: The views expressed above are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of their governments, militaries, or the Center for International Maritime Security.