Navy, industry searching for solutions to manage 'mind-boggling' amount of drone data

By Audrey Decker / October 27, 2022 at 4:09 PM

The Navy and industry partners are trying to tackle a big data problem driven by constant surveillance of unmanned systems: what information to keep and how to relay it back to the operator.

Small, autonomous and attritable systems are the future, but the Navy hasn’t figured out how to manage the massive amount of data collected by these systems, according to Chris Cleary, principal cyber adviser for the Navy.

The score of data traveling between an unmanned aerial vehicle and its home base is “almost mind-boggling,” Cleary said at a Federal News Network event yesterday.

“How much of it needs to be stored? How much of it needs to be readily available? Can it just be lost after the fact?” Cleary said.

The Navy faces a unique problem at sea because it might operate in a communications-denied environment, “so I can't kill things with information if I'm bandwidth-constrained,” Cleary said.

“What [are] the most important 1s and 0s it needs to travel on very resource-constrained devices that move things from satellite, from ship to ship and all of the above? The Navy is really struggling with this, but there are organizations that have [been] stood up to look at all these problems,” Cleary said.

Defense companies are asking the same question: How can the Navy -- and the Defense Department at large -- filter out important information and send it to an operator?

“We have not yet developed a way to even be able to figure out what the human pilot will want to be able to debrief and then sift through that data and deliver it to them,” said Steven Fino, engineering fellow at Raytheon Intelligence & Space.

“When I lose the attritable thing if I don't have links, how do I get that information off that little buddy? Otherwise, the mission was for naught and I have to go back and do it again,” Fino said yesterday at the Association of Old Crows symposium in Washington.

Thomas Beaudette, director of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems’ RF payloads, echoed Fino’s concerns at AOC, adding that it’s a “balancing act” to determine how much data should be left on a drone versus how much should be funneled to the operator.

If data is retained onboard the drone, and it gets shot down, the Navy risks giving critical information to the enemy.

“I think a lot of that determination is a risk decision that, frankly, you want to push to a commander in the battlefield because in the end, it's their mission and they're the ones that need to have the effect or get the information,” Beaudette said. “They are the ones that have to make those risk determinations. Am I willing to lose X capability by doing this with whatever protections we can put in place?”