Linking the Airfield

By Adam Stone

October 31, 2006

The 126th Air Refueling Wing will be using a WLAN to stay in touch with the central database and systems when servicing military planes — once it returns from combat deployment.

Tired of running laptops up and down the airfield, the Illinois Air National Guard has taken the first step toward implementing wireless network capabilities.

When completed, a campus-wide LAN will offer wireless service to the 126th Air Refueling Wing (ARW) located at Scott Air Force Base.

"When they then get out on the flight lines where they are working on the planes, this will give them the ability to get real-time information off their networks," says Mike Horn, director of wireless programs at Telos Corporation, which is deploying the network.

Information flow has been a problem at the 126th, where much data still is paperbound. Even digital information has been hard to handle. Without a network linking the airfield to the central database, data transfer often is a matter of carrying a laptop up and down the field.

With a wireless link connecting all points on base, "this will enable the user to [input data] right out at the aircraft, rather than having to write it down and then go and put it into the front end as a separate step," says Rob Smith, Telos' lead wireless architect.

Some of the information here is routine: logs of pre- and post-flight checks, records of maintenance operations undertaken. But some of the data also can improve the efficiency and accuracy of operations. A wireless network makes it possible, for instance, to record inventory changes in real time, "so the next guy is not trying to pull the same asset," Smith says.

The 126th Air Refueling Wing is on deployment and was not available for comment.

As a military installation, the 126th demands a high level of security. "It's not a trivial architecture," Horn says. This includes WPA2 AES Certified encryption, certified by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). This level of protection is typical for Department of Defense deployments, Horn says, "but it is certainly a level of security far above what you would find in more commercial operations."

The primary mission of the 126th Air Refueling Wing is to give air refueling support to major Air Force commands as well as other U.S. military forces and the military forces of allied nations. Telos plans to deploy a multi-faceted network in support of that mission.

As planned, the wireless network would provide real-time access to an automated maintenance system as well as to an asset tracking application. Telos also plans to lay out an RFID real-time location tracking system and voice-over-wireless capability using BlackBerry devices and VoIP phones, as well as a mobile video surveillance system.

While the technical demands of the deployment may not be overwhelming, Telos still will have its hands full, especially with its customer away from home so much of the time.

The system is due to be completed in the summer of 2007, but the 126th has been deployed in support of war missions. Smith says it would be easier to deliver an optimal system within that timeline if he had more ready access to the customer. "By having them involved, it allows us to tweak the design as we go along to meet the unique operational needs," he says.

But one cannot always have such luxuries. "That's all part of the challenge of working with the Department of Defense, that you have to work around their real-time operations," Smith says.

That kind of big-picture attitude has helped Telos win favor among federal clients. For Wi-Fi companies looking to make a living in the federal sector, the Telos executives say, the ability to go with the flow can make a world of difference.

"It's about partnering, rather than arguing about whether the work is in or out of the scope of the contract," Horn says. "It's about being flexible, trying to adapt to the constantly changing requirements that the government has. So you don't nickel and dime them every time they change the requirements."

Beyond that, present-day realities demand that any wireless wannabe in the federal realm read up on the latest security requirements. "You need to understand the nuances of the security policies," Horn says. "You have to know you are not introducing insecurities into the system as a part of your work, and I believe there are only a handful of companies who know how to do that properly."

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