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Military View

By Staff Writer | August 1, 2004
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the military spin

By Maj. Steve Colby

Data links for helicopter operations


The war on terrorism is one best tackled with information superiority. Today's military employs data links to provide situational awareness through position reporting, targeting information, and hostile and friendly order of battle.

The Army's Force XXI Battle Command Brigade and Below elements include an enhanced position location and reporting system coupled with airborne data link for close air support. The Air Force and Navy employ tactical digital information link in various waveforms and message formats called Links.

Recent developments in GPS tracking systems have enabled a new data link called Blue Forces Tracking. This allows higher headquarters to maintain contact with units through systems feeding national asset collection with low probability of exploitation signals.

An interesting civilian corollary to these links is the technology employed by today's truckers. They are being GPS tracked, dispatched, and text-messaged through satellites in a way that makes their routing, drops and pick-ups more efficient and timely. One can easily imagine these trucker links employed to monitor refrigeration, weights, average speed, driver's logs and more. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see the carryover value of this information superiority and efficiency in helicopter operations.

In 2000, the USAF experimented with a new link called Global Personnel Recovery System, which uses an aircraft-mounted transceiver that self-locates with an internal GPS and then data-bursts that position information along with a text-messaging utility through a commercial satellite. The signal is relayed to a ground station in Maryland and then routed through the Internet to command and control elements. It is essentially a wireless, over-the-horizon "instant messaging" with Blue Forces Tracking built in. Command and control elements, as well as all other participants, can view the helicopter position on a digital map and view messages to and from the helicopter. The system works similarly in reverse.

For emergency medical services, this would provide a means to move critical patient information through a network rapidly and in-parallel without the problems associated with "serial information processing" or "telephone-tag" errors. This system was employed in combat during the Gulf War demonstrating the value of that technology to the Combined Air Operations Center.

In 2003, I saw a civilian system employing similar architecture at the Emergency Response conference in Jacksonville. It was called Outerlink. (, 978-371-9190). First responders need to know about these systems and the benefits they afford the helicopter crews and the command and control nodes. Command and control is the biggest challenge of any disaster response system. These systems provide a means to track and deconflict aircraft, and dispatch two-way messaging/tasking to helicopters "over the horizon."

My only reservation about these computerized systems in aircraft is the "heads-in" time voiced in the Situational Awareness article (R&W, June 2004, page 62). You must have an additional person to access the computer in flight to receive and respond to in-flight taskings for single pilot operations.

I see smart applications in part 135 operations, logging, off-shore, civil relief, disaster and terrorism response as well, providing a common architecture for operators and responders to "link-up." It's up to the Department of Homeland Security to "standardize" the link architecture for first-responders, but it takes dedicated, smart users to voice requirements and champion the benefits of individual systems to make DHS smart on the best system acquisition route or the best way to integrate multiple systems through master gateways.

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