OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. --
This is the second part of a series highlighting innovations by the 557th Weather Wing’s 2nd Weather Group.
Using off-the-shelf components, new processes and a little inspiration from Batman, a group of innovative Airmen from the 557th Weather Wing’s 2nd Weather Group are changing how information is transmitted in the field.
Exercise Adaptive Lightning’s Task Force Bat Phone is designed to provide data capabilities for on-the-move and first-in situations – the first 72 hours after establishing a new operating location.
“Even in the best scenario, such as setting up for a field exercise, there's always a lag between the start of the setup and the establishment of a secure data link,” said Tech. Sgt. Matt Mattern, 16th Weather Squadron NCO in charge of model operations.
The Bat Phone leverages existing military radio communication and computer equipment to transmit information without using a formal communications link. Custom-built software retrieves data from Air Force Weather Web Services – known as AFW-WEBS – and packages it for delivery to deployed users in the field using a laptop.
Products like the 14th Weather Squadron’s Climate Go-Kit already provide mission planners an advantage by allowing them to access a wealth of historic climatology information to aid in decision making. Adding the Bat Phone’s ability to have near real-time weather information in the field only strengthens that position.
The inspiration for the Bat Phone concept came from the 2nd Combat Weather Systems Squadron, another 2nd WXG unit, demonstrating the feasibility of transmitting small amounts of data using tactical radios during the Adaptive Lightning Exercise in spring 2018.
They used a Harris PRC-117G tactical radio, also known as a software-defined radio. Whereas past radios required changes to the hardware in order to perform a new mission, an SDR changes missions simply by uploading new instructions from a laptop and pressing a few buttons.
With the hardware solution in place, tying the radios to the existing Air Force networks fell to the 16th WS, whose mission is to develop, demonstrate and deploy innovative environmental intelligence products into global operations.
“Our project is going to take the weather products they need and try to throw them out over radio in a compressed file format,” said Senior Airman Erik Tatro, 2nd Systems Operations Squadron alphanumerics collection technician. “Rather than having to worry about large files being sent across internet connections, we’re now breaking it down so that we have small files compressed into smaller formats. Rather than having to wait a week to get their weather forecasts, they can get it in minutes.”
The 16th WS built the software, but integrating it with the radios required reaching out to other units both inside and outside the weather wing.
“We’ve essentially assembled an all-star cast to build this proof of concept,” said Jason Smith, 16th WS chief of technology exploitation. “It’s truly a representation of your Whole Airman Concept.”
In addition to the 2nd CWSS and 2nd SYOS, both 2nd WXG units, the 16th WS also reached out to the 55th Wing, the 55th Strategic Communications Squadron and the 5th Combat Communication Support Squadron.
Under normal contracting and development methods, bringing this capability to life might have required several years. However, several Airmen in the group are also veterans of Kessel Run, an Air Force program that sends cyber Airmen to work with Silicon Valley partners. There, Airmen learn agile coding techniques that can be used to quickly develop innovative solutions to warfighter problems.
That experience paid off. The development team began work just after the New Year and was ready to test a minimum viable product – or MVP – just seven weeks later. Development costs were kept at a minimum level as the hardware is off-the-shelf and no external resources were used to develop the software.
The two laptops making the communication link are affectionately known as Alfred and Bruce. In the original “Batman” television series, Alfred would often come to Batman’s aid to help him defeat the supervillain of the week.
In this case, the software on the Alfred computer packages needed weather data and transmits it to a recipient using the Bruce laptop through the radio. The team jokes that when Bruce receives the data, it is only then that he can become Batman.
As data capabilities are limited, the software on Alfred only transmits the minimum amount of data necessary to complete a request. To speed up performance and cope with reception issues, Alfred keeps track of the data received by Bruce and will not waste time transmitting it again.
The Bat Phone’s ability to transmit data in contested, degraded or operationally-limited environments provides many advantages, including ones that go beyond the Air Force Weather community.
“These radios won’t just transmit weather data, they’ll transmit any data,” Mattern said. “That means that this program is a stepping stone toward being able to use these radios throughout every career field in the Air Force.”
Using the radio’s abilities to link multiple units, the Bat Phone has the potential to transmit data up to several hundred miles. The development team is looking to expand this horizon even further by working with the radio’s manufacturer to test satellite transmission options as well.
The 16th WS hopes to use the Bat Phone development as an example of future Air Force innovation as it stands up its own Kessel Run-style innovation lab for future projects.
The 2nd WXG is the 557th WW’s production center and a transregional, multi-functional, multi-domain solution to combatant commands. Its mission is to provide global, terrestrial, space and climatological environmental intelligence to the joint force, Defense Department senior leaders, select members of the intelligence community, interagency partners and allied nations.