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Tag Archives: Mav6
Mav6 Completes Divestitures; Announces New Approach to Deliver Game-Changing Capabilities to Government Customers
Congratulations to friend of Mav6, John B!
In order to answer this question, I first want to point out the key differences between the Army’s Constant Hawk and the Air Force’s Angel Fire systems. The principle idea behind Constant Hawk was to field a wide-area EO sensor system capable of collecting dynamic imagery of as large an area as possible (ideally a city-sized area) at a resolution sufficient to detect and track ground-moving targets. The Army views Constant Hawk as a multi-echelon ISR asset with the mission of collecting the highest fidelity imagery in order to forensically characterize targets over time. Given the intelligence-focused mission of Constant Hawk, the Army prioritizes the quality of the imagery over the ability to transmit the imagery to warfighters on the ground in real time.
Angel Fire, by contrast, focused on the time critical situational awareness requirements of tactical operators. The originator of Angel Fire, Colonel Steve Sudarth at AFRL, had two fundamental objectives for the project: 1) produce a system capable of disseminating wide-area EO imagery to tactical users in real-time and 2) produce a low-cost wide-area EO system at a price point that would enable the Services to broadly adopt and deploy the technology.
In order to accomplish the real-time dissemination objective, Angel Fire was forced to compress the hell out of the raw imagery data, reducing the data burden to a level that could be disseminated using a conventional data link. But this compression had the effect of degrading the quality of the imagery.
The key technical hurdle for Angel Fire had to do with cost reduction. The highest dollar component of most airborne surveillance systems is the stabilization platform or gimbal that enables the optic to accurately point at a target on the ground. Given the form factor of the Angel Fire sensor, the gimbal alone would cost on the order of $1 million per system – well above the total price point envisioned by Colonel Sudarth. For this reason, the Angel Fire team made the decision to eschew a gimbal as part of the system. But there were consequences to this decision.
An aircraft is far from an ideal imagery collection environment. High frequency noise or jitter from the aircraft can seriously degrade the quality of imagery – hence the need for a high-end gimbal to cancel out these vibrations. In order to eliminate the gimbal from the equation and yet still collect high fidelity images, the Angel Fire team elected to speed up the frame rate of the sensor – a technique referred to as electronic stabilization. But increasing the frame rate of an EO sensor has the unintended side effect of reducing the exposure of the image (i.e. the sensor is exposed to less light per frame), which reduces the image contrast (i.e. everything looks darker).
When you combine data loss from compression with the image degradation from electronic stabilization, you end up with a barely usable image. Under less than optimal ambient lighting conditions, the Angel Fire system did not produce imagery that was useful to the tactical user, which led to the program being decommissioned earlier than expected.
So now that you know about Angel Fire, I can tell you about its offspring – Gorgon Stare.
“No plan survives first contact with the enemy.”
This sentiment has been attributed to Prussian Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke and is widely accepted as revealed truth by every military officer that I know. Anyone looking at U.S. military engagements in the past decade can’t help but acknowledge the wisdom of Moltke’s conclusion. It is worth noting, however, that the regimented and highly structured world of Moltke’s pre-World War I military experience was a very different place from the modern threat environment. And this reality shaped how Moltke internalized his axiom.
Basically, Moltke’s key take-away was that one of the main jobs of the military leader (and his staff) was to conduct extensive analyses of possible outcomes in the development of a comprehensive system of contingency plans that would create “options” on the battlefield as the action unfolded. Put another way, Moltke’s solution: if no plan survives first contact, have more plans in your back pocket.
Contingency planning in industrial age warfare was tough. Contingency planning in information ago warfare is obscenely difficult. Of course, this doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be done. But it should be approached as more of a facilitation exercise that provides a framework for rapid decision-making as operational realities evolve than a prescriptive set of if-then scenarios.
Winning today’s conflicts is not about who has the better plan. It’s about who can learn (and by extension evolve) the quickest. The fitness function in modern warfare is not about speed and mass. It’s about adaptation. And if there’s one thing that the Pentagon hates it’s unconstrained adaptation, that is, adaptation that cannot be regulated, monitored, and controlled (i.e. planned). Such disruptive adaptation is what I call the Devil Vector. In biology, we refer to the same concept as mutation – the basis for natural selection. Mutation implies a constant dialogue between species and their external environments. Many mutations are biological dead ends. Others supply a competitive advantage that ensures a species’ competitive viability. The thing is – neither outcome can necessarily be predicted ahead of time. A priori reasoning (i.e. planning) doesn’t apply to the unprecedented.
Newton’s third law: to every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction. Newton seemed to have it right relative to the physical universe, but he’s way off the mark in socio-political universe of modern warfare. It seems to me that in the Pentagon to every action there is always an equal and opposite over reaction. “If ten Reaper orbits are good, fifty orbits must be better,” the logic goes. And for every threat variation innovated with $50 in parts ordered from the internet, you can expect a $10 million response (at the bare minimum) from our military industrial complex. Needless to say, the economics of this dynamic do not work in our favor… In today’s utterly complex military environments, this is what even the most sophisticated contingency planning gets you: more of the same, while the unknowable is hanging around out there ready to bite you in the ass.
The only way that DoD can change this state of affairs is to throw its self-imposed rule book out the window and embrace the Devil Vector. Make it a priority to institutionalize what the guys on the ground do every day: improvise. Do it carefully and methodically. Make small bets to limit risk. And – most importantly – do it in a way that enables the entire organization to benefit and learn from the winners and the losers.
Embrace change and feedback and the risk of failure, recognizing that these are the main ingredients of competitiveness in a world too complex to reduce to plans. Empower local decision makers with the tools to access and interpret the opportunities and challenges manifested by their immediate environments. And take the well considered opinions of technocrats and planners and programmers for what they are – a view from the cheap seats.
One day I’m going to write a book about the LEMV-Blue Devil saga…
Mav6 in the news…
Too often in the defense industry, we build for an abstracted version of the end-user. We design solutions for edgefighters as viewed through the lens of contractual language written by acquisition professionals who are well removed from the situation-dependent tactical details that can mean the difference between life and death in the field. We develop products for soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines instead of a soldier, a sailor, an airman, and a marine.
Industrial age warfare is over. Modern, information-age warfare is a competition of individuals, not institutions, where technology is relegated to a supporting role – albeit an important one. Within this context the question is not “How can technology ‘leverage’ achieve the desired tactical, operational, or strategic outcomes?” but rather “How can technology help edgefighters to achieve the desired outcomes?”
Today’s operational environments are a chaotic mess by historical standards. And operational diversity demands functional specialization, which in turn demands tools that can be optimized at the lowest common denominator: the individual edgefighter.
As a private citizen, I can customize the technologies in my daily life in a near infinite variety of ways to enhance my productivity and performance, yet edgefighters are seldom afforded the same luxury in the execution of their duties.
I marvel at how poorly designed most military systems are from a pure usability perspective. Even today, there seems to be little recognition in the defense industry that usability impacts performance. The extra split second that it takes to find actionable threat information using a poorly design user interface can make all the difference in the field. And anyone who’s ever tried to squeeze into a HMMWV understands how poor design can effect mission performance.
Thoughtful design with an eye towards end-user specialization doesn’t just win in the commercial marketplace, it’s a strategic imperative in contemporary conflict environments. When the enemy is regularly innovating new threats in a development cycle that measures in weeks, it’s impossible to go back to the well and create new purpose-built countermeasures in time to effect the tactical fight.
This is where good design comes in. Military systems must transcend the idea of application-specific engineering and migrate to the technology-as-ecosystem model, where platforms are designed to co-evolve with the operational environment and the changing needs of users.
Mav6 is committed to the idea of improving the edgefighter experience through great product and solution design that helps the men and women engaged on the front lines of conflict and public safety do their jobs better, safer, and faster. This means building flexible, easy to use solutions that can be customized in the field to accommodate emerging operational needs. There’s nothing revolutionary about this. It’s something the commercial world learned long ago. And if you ask us, it’s well past time for the defense industry to take note.