NextGen Hub Enables More Frequent, Secure Multi-Agency Experiments and Simulations

May 2012
Topics: Aviation Administration, Collaborative Computing, Collaborative Decision Making, Modeling and Simulation
MITRE's NextGen Interagency Experimentation Hub enables agencies to practice emergency scenarios in real time from their own locations while sharing information over secure links.
simulation environment

A passenger on a cross-country flight creates a disturbance, behaving erratically and verbally threatening passengers and crew. How do authorities know whether the unruly passenger is drunk, is experiencing a medical emergency, or is a terrorist?

U.S. troops return from an overseas mission securing villages decimated by Ebola, a virus fatal to the world's weakest and malnourished. Who ensures that none of the troops unintentionally carries the virus home?

A massive hurricane strikes along the Gulf Coast, with winds and flooding that devastate the region's people, services, and infrastructure. Who assesses the damage and coordinates a response?

Each unique event requires action from a range of public and private agencies and interests. Periodic drills, reenactments, and simulations help prepare responders for the unexpected. However, because each agency operates under its own procedures and shares information at varying security levels, those experiments can be complex, time consuming, and expensive to execute.

As a solution, a MITRE team—including representation from four of MITRE's federally funded research and development centers (FFRDCs) —developed the NextGen Interagency Experimentation Hub. The technology allows all agencies involved in a scenario to interact in real time from their own locations and share information over secure links. This improves communications, and enables experiments, data exchange, and testing to take place more frequently. At a time when most agencies are working to contain costs, the Hub allows participation without the expense of bringing all the participants to the same location.

A Cross-Functional Solution

The idea originated as a project in the Center for Advanced Aviation System Development (CAASD)—the FFRDC that MITRE manages for the Federal Aviation Administration. However, the Hub has grown to involve multiple agencies and other FFRDCs, including those managed by MITRE.

"The first glimmer that this could be a project came in 2009 when we were directing an experiment on a defense project that involved the Air Force Research Lab [AFRL]," says Doug Flournoy, a simulation modeling engineer working with MITRE's National Security Engineering Center FFRDC in our Bedford, Mass., office.

"The customer was in the AFRL in Mesa, Ariz., and they wanted to participate, but all their systems were in Arizona," he says. "It awakened us to the idea that we can't always bring everyone to a common location for experiments. Many people need to be involved, but at that time, unless they came to us, there was no way to connect them as we needed to. There wasn't the time, the money, or the system in place to pass the required security accreditation."

Matt McNeely, a software engineer working with CAASD, said Flournoy approached him with the idea for an internally funded research initiative to streamline the process. The pair had worked together on a project for MITRE's Collaborative Experimentation Environment, which conducts experiments using real-world scenarios to illustrate how organizations, their processes and their technologies, can collaborate successfully. The two proposed a hub that would allow MITRE's labs to communicate with external and classified labs that support our sponsors, including the FAA, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Defense. Valerie Gawron, a technology integrator in CAASD for the NextGen MITRE Innovation Program Challenge, agreed to secure the funding for it.

Addressing Complex Challenges

Gawron said McNeely and Flournoy illustrated the complexity of communicating and sharing information across agencies, especially in potential crises—even for simulations.

"When you think about aviation, there is no single agency making it work," she says. "The FAA worries about safety in the National Airspace System [NAS]. The Department of Homeland Security worries about security getting to the gate, and the DoD works to defend U.S. air space." Other stakeholders include airlines, airframe and avionics manufacturers, and airport authorities.

Take the example of the unruly passenger. A member of the flight crew would likely respond first. Another flight crew member would report the in-flight incident to the airline's dispatcher, who would notify the nearest air traffic control center.

About 5,000 aircraft typically share the NAS at any one time, Gawron says. When an event like the unruly passenger takes place, the FAA's Domestic Events Network enables air traffic control to talk with the North American Aerospace Defense Command, a joint U.S.-Canadian agency. The U.S. Secret Service, U.S. Federal Air Marshals, the Transportation Security Operations Center, and other federal entities involved with airline security might also be listening in. On the classified side, Gawron says, there is another conversation going on among intelligence staff or homeland security staff with a different level of information.

In a simulation or experiment involving an in-flight incident, the NextGen Interagency Experimentation Hub provides a realistic scenario of the NAS and enables participants to interact through MITRE's Aviation Integration Demonstration and Experimentation for Aeronautics Laboratory (IDEA Lab) using a variety of servers. The Hub allows unclassified data to penetrate the classified firewall so the people making decisions and recommendations at higher levels have access to all the information they need, without permitting classified information to escape the other way.

Expanding the Hub's Capability

The team will have an opportunity to put the Hub to the test in an aviation context later this year. However, Gawron says the Hub can have applications in other multi-agency scenarios, including the Ebola or pandemic example.

"How does the air mobility command respond if we have to do 100 percent inspections of military personnel coming into the United States to see if they are carrying the virus?" she asks hypothetically. "How do the DoD, FAA, Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, and other agencies protect the country from the virus with minimum disruption of the NAS?"

The NextGen Interagency Experimentation Hub helps answer some of those questions by identifying gaps in mission, technical, and policy capabilities, and providing an environment where these complex scenarios can unfold as real-time experiments instead of real-life dramas.

—by Molly Manchenton

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