By Scott Prater
Imagine a system that monitors a satellite, learns its normal behavior over time and alerts operators when and if abnormal behavior occurs.
It sounds a bit like science fiction, but after testing a pilot program known as “Blue Force Status” for the past two years, the 3rd Space Operations Squadron recently began testing the capability to transmit BFS telemetry data directly to the Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.
So what does that mean?
The JSpOC, an operational command and control center, now has the capability to monitor the status of the Wideband Global Satellite Constellation in real time — with assistance from 3 SOPS.
Back in 2008, Lt. Gen. Michael Hamel, then the Space and Missile Systems Center commander, directed all SMC wings to develop a plan to provide “real-time” blue-force status for space assets to the JSpOC, with the goal of enhancing overall Space Situational Awareness.
In a joint effort to meet that requirement, the MILSATCOM Wideband Satcom Group and Space Superiority Wing introduced BFS to 3 SOPS later in 2008.
“Think of it (BFS) as an intelligence system as opposed to a rule-based system,” said Leon Lala, Aerospace Corp. project engineer.
The legacy situational awareness tool within the Command and Control System-Consolidated system uses set parameters to identify whether a satellite is performing normally or not.
A good example would be a battery. A battery has to be within a safe range. In that range, CCS-C is going to tell you everything is working well, and it will flag anything that happens outside the safe range. By contrast, Blue Force Status learns the normal operation of the battery, and when something happens outside that normal behavior, it raises a flag.
This artificial intelligence technology seems like a simple shift of focus, but it holds wide-ranging implications that could affect the way the Air Force operates satellites in the future.
“BFS is transformational technology,” said Lt. Col. Greg Karahalis, 3 SOPS director of operations. “It changes the way we’ve been doing business for the last 30 to 40 years. We’ll be able to identify events we didn’t know were happening before and we’ll have an easier time assessing a vehicle’s status. Really, in terms of the speed of reporting and direction, our relationship with the JSpOC will be fundamentally altered.”
First Lieutenant Don Perrotta, chief WGS engineering section, describes BFS as simply a software algorithm. But, it’s much more than that.
“The heart of the program lies within the neural-net structure,” Lieutenant Perrotta said. “The nets actually learn a specific satellite’s behavior and report detected differences. The telemetry processed by BFS may be used for a variety of purposes to include seasonal-event monitoring such as eclipses or anomaly detection and response.”
What’s important for the Air Force is BFS technology provides a better tool for analysts who study satellite behavior. It can statistically link data that may seem unrelated on the surface, which helps engineers both understand anomalies in real time and forecast component failures.
“That’s a great asset when you’re responsible for a satellite in geosynchronous orbit,” Lieutenant Perotta said. “However, detecting anomalies and abnormalities represents only half of BFS’ utility. BFS fits into the JSpOC’s Joint Mission System program and will eventually report real-time status of the WGS constellation, which in turn may be fused with other systems’ status to paint a picture of overall space situational awareness.”
Colonel Karahalis says BFS takes a significant step in boosting the level of communication and decision making between a tactical unit like 3 SOPS and an operational command and control center like JSpOC.
“I believe this is the first time that any user has ever connected a near real-time statusing of abnormalities to the JSpOC,” he said.
Blue Force Status is still in the testing phase, however.
“This is a pilot program,” Colonel Karahalis said. “We’re in the very early stages of what will become a formal acquisition. Right now, were listing it as an engineering tool, but it will become an operational tool in the future.”