Air Force Adds Wi-Fi to Arsenal

By Naomi Graychase

September 29, 2005

WLANs are replacing the paper that flight technicians and engineers previously relied on to support our flying military.

The U.S. Air Force is adding a new weapon at more than 50 bases nationwide. Currently, 65 bases have replaced their old pen-and-paper flight-line maintenance systems with Wi-Fi, and another 20-25 bases are scheduled for WLAN deployments in the next 18 months.

Telos, a Virginia-based company that offers secure and managed enterprise solutions to clients—which, for the time being, are exclusively governmental agencies such as the Department of Defense, Homeland Security and the IRS—has been tapped to roll out all of the WLAN deployments.

By the end of the scheduled deployments, WLANs will be implemented at almost all major Commands within the Air Force, including Air Mobility, Air Combat, Air Education and Training Commands, as well as all 17 Air Force Reserve Commands.

Since no two bases are the same, the first step in the process is a site survey conducted by Telos. A WLAN is then custom-designed to meet the specific needs of that particular base. So far, site surveys have been completed at 105 bases. Once approval for funding is granted, the infrastructures will be put into place.

Currently, eight or nine bases are in the midst of WLAN deployments, including Moody Air Force Base in Georgia, which is home to the 347th Rescue Wing and houses roughly 4,000 military personnel and 1,000 civilians. The Moody deployment began in July and should be completed by the end of October.

A military spokesperson was unable to comment on specific benefits, but according to Telos, Wi-Fi offers significant time- and money-saving benefits over the outdated methods flight-line personnel have used to date.

“This particular application allows flight-line technicians and engineers to receive their technical orders, and open and close them from the aircraft to perform their maintenance checklists at the flight line,” says Telos' Director of Wireless, Tom Badders. “They can access interactive technical manuals, so that precludes them from having to bring 600 pounds of manuals and hope to have the most recent version, and it allows them to order and track parts that they require for their maintenance process.”

The wireless infrastructure is expected to eliminate much of the time that is currently wasted while maintenance workers travel back and forth to the maintenance shack to update manuals or enter data.

“Previously, before this was implemented, they would have a paper manual at the aircraft with them, they would make a note of whatever part was required, and then move on to the next job, and at the end of the day, they’d enter all that data into the system. Now, they can update databases in real time, and there is an accurate view of the status of an aircraft and parts orders in real time. Anywhere that maintenance databases are updated in real time, the aircraft is made available to the fighter much more quickly,” says Badders.

The switch to real-time data entry has required no new software. The wireless system was tied directly into the existing core Air Force Base network. Plans are in the works to add barcode scanning capabilities to cut down on the inevitable human error involved in data entry, as well as the development of time-saving software components like pull-down menus.

The cost of the military WLAN deployments varies depending on the size of the base, the size of the flight line, and how many aircraft are serviced there.

“A typical infrastructure costs about $500,000, including the site survey, network design, integration of components, and full implementation,” says Badders.

Security, of course, is a top concern.

“We were able to architect a solution for the Air Force that met or exceeded all of their security requirements,” says Badders. “When we first started going out to the major Commands with this type of solution, there were significant concerns about security, based on all the noise in the papers about WEP encryption not being secure, and easily being hacked into. Our design includes multiple levels of security that are sufficient to meet the requirements of the Department of Defense.”

The majority of the networks being deployed are 802.11b and 802.11g networks. Telos is moving toward more 802.11g deployments, but in some locations, distance and bandwidth requirements dictate the use of 802.11b.

“We’d like to see g networks in some areas—like out on the flight lines that extend 1500-2500 feet from the access point—but it's more effective with a b network than a g,” Badders says.

In addition to the several dozen pending Air Force Wi-Fi deployments, a WiMax deployment at Fort Dix in New Jersey is also coming down the pike for Telos.

“Fort Dix is a very large training and test facility,” says Badders. “They have large outdoor ranges where they set up training for soldiers before they deploy. There is no infrastructure out in those wide ranges. They want to use WiMax to extend a base network from a headquarters building to bring network connectivity. At the endpoint of a WiMax high-speed link will be a Wi-Fi solution. We’ll be binding them together, with WiMax primarily replacing a fiber optic link.”



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