Editor's Letter Insights Interviews

An Internet of Wings?

Written by Jeff Child

As I’ve mentioned before in this column, before joining Circuit Cellar I served several years as the editor of a magazine focused on embedded computing used in military systems. You might not imagine that the Internet of Things (IoT) has much relevance in that market space. While it’s true we didn’t cover IoT directly, as the IoT phenomenon gathered steam, it was clear that the defense industry was following it with keen interest. IoT was clearly ramping up fast in market segments like industrial control, transportation, energy and the smart home.

Although you don’t hear IoT associated with the defense market, it didn’t take long before the military became very much interested in the technologies and capabilities of IoT. A sophisticated IoT network is a connection of sensors, embedded devices and systems. Sensors gather machine and environmental data and then pass that data on to embedded intelligent systems at the edge device or node. A secure wired or wireless network—often using an IoT gateway—connects those devices and nodes using middleware to bridge the network to the IT system. At the IT level—often using a cloud model—enterprise applications are used to apply business intelligence and analytics to the data and present the data in an organized and useful fashion.

Interestingly enough, that same sort of architecture is essentially what the DoD had been calling “netcentric” operations as much as twelve years ago. So, in some ways, the defense industry embraced the idea long before the IoT emerged. While at one time there were several networking technology choices, the U.S. military several years ago chose to embrace an “Everything over IP” (EoIP) strategy. An ongoing goal of U.S. military operational strategy looking forward has been to grow an interconnected network of sensors, shooters, command, control and intelligence. This network-centric idea includes programs developed by the Command, Control, Communications, Computer and Intelligence (C4I) community to build joint architectures and roadmaps for integrating joint airborne networking capabilities with the evolving ground, maritime and space networks.

Just as in the commercial IoT marketplace, the processing for those platforms are next generation embedded computing solutions—in the form of multicore processor-based SBCs, box-level systems and special function subsystems. Such processing technologies combine low power capabilities to enable the reduced Size, Weight and Power (SWaP) requirements the military demands these days. That’s achieved simultaneously with high performance processing features that enable floating point and vector computation as well as those that ease parallelism by enabling multiple threads to run on each processor core. Meanwhile advanced encryption technologies along with trusted execution schemes give system developers the tools to keep their military systems secure and safe from hypervisor attacks and other threats.

Just as with IoT in the non-military world, the use of Internet Protocol in net-centric operations has a lot of untapped potential. While the IPv4 protocol has a limited number of IP addresses, the migration to IPv6 means that there are essentially an infinite number of nodes available. To get an idea of the numbers, using IPv6 there’s on the order of billions of IP addresses for each person on the planet.

The power that opens up for machine-to-machine (M2M) connectivity in IoT applications is staggering, although many argue that even with IPv4 there’s no real hindrance with fairly commonplace bridging and gateways. All that said, the future of the IoT is made much brighter by the unlimited nature of IPv6. Remote maintenance is just one area that could exploit the infinite number of IP addresses. Imagine if every component and subsystem in the wing of an F-35 aircraft had its own IP address and could be diagnosed and monitored over a secure network? Will it be long before we’re talking seriously about an Internet of Wings?

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PUBLISHED IN CIRCUIT CELLAR MAGAZINE• SEPTEMBER 2019 #350- Get a PDF of the issue


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Jeff Child has more than 28 years of experience in the technology magazine business—including editing and writing technical content, and engaging in all aspects of magazine leadership and production. He joined the Circuit Cellar after serving as Editor-in-Chief of COTS Journal for over 10 years. Over his career Jeff held senior editorial positions at several of leading electronic engineering publications, including EE Times and Electronic Design and RTC Magazine. Before entering the world of technology journalism, Jeff worked as a design engineer in the data acquisition market.