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SEI Researchers Test Tactical-Edge Tools and Assess Real-World Stakeholder Challenges at JIFX


April 4, 2013 - Twice a year, a select group of researchers gathers at Camp Roberts, Calif., for the Naval Postgraduate School's (NPS) Joint Interagency Field Exploration (JIFX). The events explore the potential of emerging capabilities to address challenges faced by the United States' Unified and Combatant Commands (COCOM) and the federal entities that support them. Earlier this year, a team from the Software Engineering Institute's (SEI) Research, Technology, and Systems Solutions (RTSS) Program traveled to Camp Roberts to participate in the February 2013 JIFX event. JIFX organizers invited the RTSS team to demonstrate a number of its prototypes currently in development.

"The tactical-edge space is life and death to both soldiers and first responders. Each needs tools to maximize situational awareness, optimize the available computing and power resources, and minimize cognitive overload." - Jeff Boleng, SEI

"The COCOMs need tools to support warfighters operating in ad hoc, resource-constrained, dynamic, and hostile environments," said Jeff Boleng, a senior member of the SEI technical staff serving on the RTSS Advanced Mobile Systems Team. "By engaging with stakeholders in events like JIFX, we not only have an opportunity to test our research and development, but to see challenges encountered at the tactical edge through the eyes of the people who can most benefit from it. An event like JIFX gives us a chance to find out what it's like to walk in a soldier's shoes."

Beyond the battlefield, the R&D undertaken by the SEI has application in other difficult edge environments, such as emergency response and disaster areas. "The tactical-edge space is life and death to both soldiers and first responders," noted Boleng. "Each needs tools to maximize situational awareness, optimize the available computing and power resources, and minimize cognitive overload." Boleng noted that participating JIFX stakeholders from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) showed particular interest in how the SEI's work could support the efforts of first responders. 

"We've identified an area of need," said Boleng, "and we're researching a whole realm of technologies to address the need. We're trying to apply our entire toolbox to the range of challenges encountered at the edge."

At the Camp Roberts JIFX event, a number of these tools were tested by potential end users. In one test, a team from the California National Guard evaluated Information Superiority at the Edge (ISE). The ISE system uses individual and group contexts to ensure that the right information is available to the right user at the right time. The experiment asked the National Guard team to respond to a number of event scenarios, including an unexploded ordnance, improvised explosive devices, ambush response, call for artillery support, casualty response, and medical evacuation. 

"The National Guard team performed expert evaluations of the system and provided important feedback," said Boleng. In addition to the user feedback, automated sensors recorded data during the experiment. "The information gathered from sensors will inform our future research," added Boleng. 

In another demonstration, the SEI team applied its situational awareness mobile client-server system to search-and-rescue and first-responder scenarios. "There's heavy interest in using handheld computing devices to support missions in tactical and hostile environments," said Gene Cahill from the RTSS Advanced Mobile Systems Team. "However, current mobile systems either provide too much information, or the data is fragmented across multiple systems. Our work in situational awareness mashups at the edge, on which we've collaborated with Brad Myers of Carnegie Mellon University's Human Computer Interaction Institute, addresses these problems by helping users quickly and easily tailor data from multiple sources to suit their needs."

"In our demonstration," said Cahill, "we pulled geo-tagged data from the Wireless Emergency Alert system, Twitter, Flickr, and Foursquare for the dates around Hurricane Sandy. Using this data, we created comprehensible mashups that blended eyewitness information, photographs, and other information about affected areas in real time during the hurricane. FEMA, DHS, and other first- responder stakeholders at JIFX provided us vital feedback." According to Cahill, stakeholders believed the system holds great promise for bridging gaps between public and private data-source sharing while helping individual users configure the data they find relevant.

Scott Hissam, senior member of the technical staff in the SEI's RTSS Socio-Adaptive Systems team, focuses the team's approach to adaptive quality of service (AQoS) on network resource allocation in disadvantaged, dynamic environments. It seeks not only to optimize a soldier's ability in the field, but also to optimize globally, to others, as well. "We're working on resilient applications that can fight through rapidly changing network capacity and degrade gracefully," said Hissam. He described the AQoS demonstration as a data-collection exercise that will spur development of large-scale simulations.

Hissam noted that, with AQoS, the idea is to detect when demand on a network exceeds capacity and to pass this information on to applications. Traffic associated with higher priority applications data takes precedence over applications of lower semantic priority. "The key is to provide a means by which applications can continue to carry out mission objectives by adapting to dynamically changing network conditions, specifically available bandwidth, without compromising the applications' critical runtime quality of service," said Hissam.

The team's demonstration of self-governing mobile adhocs with sensors and handhelds (SMASH) involved controlling a swarm of semi-autonomous devices using handheld devices in the field. "We were able to test the Android interfaces we developed for SMASH with flying semi-autonomous devices," said James Edmondson, a senior member of the technical staff in the SEI's RTSS Program. "This was a first for us." Edmondson's team successfully demonstrated an ability to network the devices using high-capacity, short-range WiFi access points and to coordinate activities among the devices using handhelds on the ground. "We were highly impressed with the JIFX attendees, the free exchange of information between industry and government, and the potential for future collaboration," said Edmondson. 

Summarizing the RTSS team's experience at JIFX, Boleng noted that the event was not only an opportunity to demonstrate the team's work, but to learn more about the needs of key stakeholders. "It was a chance for us to listen and to hear firsthand about real problems and challenges faced by soldiers and first responders," said Boleng. "What we learned was invaluable, and will help us align our work with real-world needs. We can also carry these lessons back to our collaborators in the academic research community and help them shape and scope their research agenda to match real problems."

For more information about the SEI RTSS Program, please visit

For more information about the RTSS Advanced Mobile Systems team, please visit