Groundbreaking Signal Processing Technology Broadens View of the WorldOctober 2021
Topics: Signal Processing, Military Programs, Systems Engineering, Artificial Intelligence, Joint Operations
Imagine maneuvering your way through a pitch-black room, with just a flashlight in hand. From the field of its narrow beam, you’re able to see just a small slice of what’s around you. Not nearly enough to warn you off something potentially dangerous.
In a sense, that’s what conventional signals intelligence (SIGINT) systems provide: a narrow view of the “spectral” world. And every application looking for threats, like military operators searching for jamming and adversarial signals, can process just a limited segment of the spectrum at a time.
Today’s rapid-paced signals environment needs a wide-beam flashlight, so to speak, to characterize and understand as much of the radio frequency spectrum as possible. MITRE’s Photon™ provides that capability.
With Photon, our mission-critical program work for the U.S. Army brings accelerated wideband spectrum processing to the DoD and Intelligence Community (IC)—expanding their view of the world.
Photon serves as a key framework for the Army Terrestrial Layer System (TLS), which delivers SIGINT and electronic warfare (EW) capabilities at the tactical edge of operations. Through the next-generation tactical vehicle-based system, TLS aims to enhance the Army’s readiness to meet military commanders’ information needs in large-scale combat operations.
The Army entrusted MITRE with developing this capability, investing millions of dollars to see the technology succeed. Photon is now a critical component of the service’s strategy to detect and counter advanced threats.
“A Month’s Worth of Cell Phone Data, Every Second”
Leveraging established investments in software defined radios, high-performance computing, artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning (ML), the innovation enables real-time processing of massive amounts of data.
“Photon allows dozens of software applications to run in parallel and access data at large volumes—from hundreds to thousands of megahertz,” says MITRE’s Bill Urrego, one of Photon’s primary inventors.
“That’s like processing a month’s worth of cell phone data, every second.”
With 20 times the capability of conventional sensor processing systems, Photon transforms the traditional signal processing environment.
In traditional signal processing, an operator tunes their radio to listen to a limited number of channels at a time. Or they record data to review later. But Photon’s AI/ML-driven dashboard gives users a macro-view word cloud of everything happening in the moment—thousands of signals intercepted across thousands of channels.
The graphics processing unit-based platform allows operators to rapidly home in on a target at high resolution—while viewing it in parallel to the macro view. This offers a clearer picture of what’s going on.
Photon enables multiple, simultaneous intelligence collection missions in support of diverse operations. This reduces the need for additional missions—and the risk to warfighters.
MITRE’s Jeremy Martin, TLS project lead, likens the platform to a smartphone. “Much like smartphones allow users to access different apps, Photon enables a wide range of applications—what we call microservices—to run simultaneously.”
The platform has proven successful in hosting cutting-edge operational capabilities for current combat operations. For example, Army units deployed with Photon demonstrated the first-known operational use of deep-learning-based AI for adversarial signal recognition.
Photon is a critical component of MITRE’s Spectrum Platform, a framework with common hardware and software infrastructure to help rapidly prototype, develop, and field next-generation SIGINT/EW capabilities. Army tactical EW systems are integrating the Spectrum Platform within TLS to enhance warfighters’ ability to generate a tactic, known as electronic attack, against adversary signals.
With its spectrum-enhancing capabilities, Photon’s applications extend beyond SIGINT and EW.
“I’m excited about how we might ultimately use this technology to transform innovations in 5G, cyber, and the Internet of Things—for potentially global impact,” Urrego says.
Teaming to Offer the Best Available Technologies
MITRE’s established relationships with a diverse set of DoD and IC stakeholders provided key access for Photon’s development. Those partnerships, combined with our deep understanding of defense industrial base products and roadmaps, brought a holistic approach to a complex integration.
The effort also required a unique intersection of skillsets: software engineering, signal processing, electrical engineering, graphics interface, and an Agile approach. To get the job done, we brought together experts from across the company—now a team of 40-plus engineers.
Wayne McLaggan, MITRE’s chief engineer for TLS, attributes the platform’s success in part to strong relationships.
“As word of Photon’s potential spread within MITRE, staff all across the company stepped up to bring new innovations to integrate within the platform,” McLaggan says.
Moreover, the teaming transcends MITRE’s borders. “Our Army sponsors are highly experienced, capable engineers themselves,” he adds. “They understand the challenges around this, and they trust when we say we’ll deliver something, we will.
“It’s very much a relationship of mutual trust and respect—and a true partnership.”
MITRE designed Photon with open architecture to easily integrate third-party capabilities. Its common layer makes it accessible across defense industry vendors. That means smoother integration into existing and future systems—and delivering advanced capabilities to warfighters faster and more reliably.
Photon’s patent-pending technology can also multiply the impact of other MITRE innovations. For example, plans are underway to develop direction-finding and geolocation applications using MITRE-developed FUSE™ antenna arrays.
Looking ahead, we’re considering how to enable third parties to build additional microservices on top of the Photon framework, with minimal interaction from our team. Photon’s open framework—along with our product development kit—will allow vendors to do this at no cost.
“We created Photon to integrate the best available technologies from the government, the defense industry, and the private sector, bringing all those together to benefit the warfighter—and in the future the larger public,” Martin says.
Currently, other DoD and IC organizations are exploring how they might use Photon. Alongside the Army as a strong partner-advocate for the platform, MITRE has been talking with other services and the Border Patrol about Photon’s potential applications.
“The caliber of the work has actually changed our customers’ expectations and raised the bar for this kind of product development,” McLaggan says.
“Ultimately this innovation allows us to transition state-of-the-art capabilities to the warfighter and other organizations, all working to advance our nation’s security and stability.”
—by Denise Schiavone