Coast Guard and NASA eye wireless Internet for ships, spacecraft, and land vehicles

Feb. 1, 2002
U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Tony Ceraolo, captain of the icebreaking tug CGC Neah Bay, says the mobile Internet protocol network recently tested on his 140-foot vessel is "one heck of a system.

by Wilson P. Dizard III

CLEVELAND — U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Tony Ceraolo, captain of the icebreaking tug CGC Neah Bay, says the mobile Internet protocol network recently tested on his 140-foot vessel is "one heck of a system. The chance to have under way connectivity is going to help a lot in our administrative systems."

Ceraolo says the system would be especially helpful because the Coast Guard increasingly is moving to electronic transmission of many of its paper forms. "That's great on the shore side," he says. "But it's hard for ships if you do not have that connectivity at sea."

He cites the example of filing benefits for health insurance. "Many of our issues that used to be on paper now are on the Internet." As a result, Coast Guard officers must hook up to the Internet in port to process administrative tasks when they could be enjoying liberty, Ceraolo says.

Similarly, when personnel fill out the "dream sheets" they use to request new assignments, electronic submissions reduce paperwork. But submitting electronic documents is not convenient while the vessel is underway.

And of course, Internet connectivity goes far beyond processing personnel matters. The Neah Bay is designed primarily for icebreaking, but it also carries out secondary missions in law enforcement, environmental protection, search and rescue, and navigational aid.

In the law enforcement mission's drug-interdiction role, Coast Guard units formerly used secure radio links to exchange information about persons intercepted at sea as a result of antidrug operations, Ceraolo says.

"Now we could access that information quicker" with the mobile Internet protocol connection, he says. The day may be dawning when such wireless capability is commonplace aboard Coast Guard vessels.

Communications experts at the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland have been cooperating with Cisco Systems Inc. of San Jose, Calif., the National Security Agency (NSA) in Washington, and the U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Command at Fort Monmouth, N.J. to develop mobile Internet protocol networks. The team has also worked with Verizon of New York, Hadron Inc. of Alexandria, Va., and Lockheed Martin Global Telecommunications of Bethesda, Md.

The mobile router that lies at the heart of the mobile IP network is software code that resides in a Cisco Systems network router. It enables entire networks to roam while staying connected to the Internet. Cisco Systems released the mobile router code as part of its Internetworking Operating System (IOS) last October.

William D. Ivancic, senior research engineer at NASA Glenn, says the standard for mobile IP was established by the Internet Engineering Task Force as RFC or Request for Comments 8002 five years ago. The company has been developing the code since 1999.

NASA and Cisco have been cooperating through a Space Act agreement for about four years, Ivancic says. They have been working on the mobile IP network project for about 18 months.

Cisco's mobile router can provide Internet connectivity to a wide range of mobile units, Ivancic says.

"It's going to revolutionize mobile communications," he says. The system can go in Humvees, automobiles, trains, ships, airplanes both civilian and military, uninhabited aircraft, trucks, buses, subway cars, and the like. "Ambulances with EMS [emergency medical service] workers could be networked back to the hospital," Ivancic says. "All this would be transparent to the user."

NASA scientists are working to space-qualify the hardware, so they can stand up to the radiation, vibration, temperature, and other environmental extremes of space, Ivancic says. When they achieve that milestone, they can deploy the mobile IP networks to aid communication and navigation by military and NASA satellite constellations.

As it stands now, Ivancic says, the mobile IP router network could be deployed on the International Space Station because the environmental conditions there are not as hostile as those encountered by equipment exposed to space.

While the space station does have an Internet link, he says, "It has a real kludge on it; even though they are orbiting, they look like they are always tied to White Sands [N.M., a NASA tracking station.] You would try it on an aircraft first because you wouldn't have to radiation harden it."

NASA's main role in the research is to help Cisco engineers understand the requirements of space communications, Ivancic says.

The mobile IP standard has not been widely deployed, Ivancic says, because using it required special client software on each workstation attached to a network.

By contrast, Cisco's new router "is mobile at the network layer, instead of at the radio layer [like the browser on a mobile phone]," Ivancic says. "This is broadband in both directions. Nobody else has a router like this," he adds. "What this router does that is so nice is that it takes care of the mobility so that everything sitting behind it does not have to have special mobility software."

For example, a computer user on an aircraft equipped with one of the mobile IP network routers could plug a PC into a data port and link to the Internet without installing special software.

Ivancic says his team is working with the NSA to incorporate Type One encryption into the system, which he described as NSA level secret.

One issue with making networks mobile, Ivancic says, is how to keep track of billing. "Just as with your cell phone, you can roam," he says. Commercial wireless phone companies use roaming billing agreements. But, he adds, "Some places [like the U.S. military] can build their own infrastructure. The key is to share infrastructure or rapidly set it up, if it is the military" operating in a remote location.

Ivancic says NASA's space application for the mobile IP network would not be one of the first applications for the technology, because the space market is small. Other markets for the technology, furthermore, are relatively easy to enter because the routers do not require radiation hardening.

Before testing the mobile IP router on the Neah Bay, the NASA/Cisco technical team installed it in a test van at the NASA Glenn Center. They used RF links via yagi and dipole antennas installed on the test van to demonstrate e-mail transfers, web browsing, voice over IP, FTP file transfers, secure shell, and telnet transmissions. The three basic elements of the technology are a home agent, a foreign agent, and a mobile node, technical experts say.

In a standard mobile IP routing protocol, the home agent is a router on the mobile node's home network that delivers data to mobile node via the foreign agent. This approach uses a technology called "tunneling," which lets one network send its data via another network's connections. It does so by wrapping a network protocol within packets carried by the second network.

In this standard protocol, according to technical team members, that the mobile node first checks if it is directly linked to its home network or to a foreign network by using Internet Control Message Protocol Router Discover messages.

If the mobile node links to a foreign net, team members say, the mobile node looks for a foreign router. If it finds one, the mobile node registers with its home agent via the foreign agent and establishes a one-way IP tunnel from the home agent to the mobile node. The home agent then wraps all the data packets it sends to the mobile node in the appropriate network protocol.

As the conventional mobile IP communication process continues, the foreign agent unwraps the packets and sends them on to the mobile node, according to the NASA/Cisco team.

However, the mobile router IOS takes the process a step further by allowing an entire network to become mobile, according to the NASA/Cisco Systems team. A PC or workstation linked to the mobile IP router does not have to have special mobile IP software because the mobile router provides the roaming capabilities.

The main enabling technology in this development, according to the technical team, is the establishment of a second tunnel between the home agent and the mobile router. The second tunnel forwards data packets to the hosts on the mobile network.

In this arrangement, the home agent double-wraps each data packet when it receives a ping, or message, directed at the mobile network. The first wrapping is the mobile router's address. The second wrapping is the foreign agent's address.

In the mobile IP network, the foreign agent unwraps the first layer, and then sends the packet on to the mobile router, according to the technical team. The mobile router reads the second address and sends the packet on to its final destination, the team says.

As the mobile router moves, it can use various types of communications links to register with its home agent via various foreign agents. "Thus, a mobile router is a mobile node; however, the node is a network rather than a single host," according to the technical team.

A mobile router could have several communication links for varying purposes. A mobile router installed on an aircraft, for example, could use a wired connection for ground operations, a Very High Frequency data link (VDL) antenna, and a satellite antenna. It might also have a local area network for use inside the aircraft.

In the aircraft example, systems designers could configure the mobile router for smooth handoffs. Because the mobile route maintains a list of available foreign agents, the airborne system might use its VDL link during takeoff and switch to its satellite system while in flight.

The mobile IP network technical team has developed a scenario for battlefield mobile router deployment that would involve an intelligence control center in the U.S., a battle group command center in the field, and various combat assets such as aircraft, tanks and mobile command posts.

In the battlefield scenario, the various units communicate through the mobile IP route network via their preferred paths, which in the case of vehicles might often be line-of-sight communications, according to the technical team. However, if line-of-sight communications were lost, the network would switch communications over to alternative routes via foreign agents in satellites or uninhabited aircraft.

The mobile router can be installed on any Cisco router model 2600 or better by upgrading its IOS. The software only has to be configured once, team members say.

"What makes this exciting is I can take a PC from my office and plug it into the router network and it becomes mobile, with no modification to the PC or additional software," says Dan Shell, Cisco Federal's project manager for mobile network technologies in Herndon, Va. The mobile router "reconfigures itself between subnets as it is moving around-it changes its default gateway on the fly," he says.

The technical team members say they foresee a myriad of applications for the mobile router technology in military and civilian applications such as entertainment, IP telephony, mobile banking, healthcare, and mobile video.

In warfare, the system could extend beyond battlefield operations to theatre commands, according to the technical team. A theatre command center could coordinate the operations of multiple battle groups and battle group command centers, using weaponry in space, on land, and on the sea, all mobile and all linked by the Internet, via mobile IP routers.

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Military Aerospace, create an account today!