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Wi-Fi coming to ships, subs

Effort based on fleet feedback; includes tablets for crews

Oct. 18, 2013 - 04:15PM   |  
By SAM FELLMAN   |   Comments
PCU Minnesota MWM 20130812
A sailor uses a tablet aboard the submarine Minnesota. Navy leaders plan to issue tablets and equip ships and submarines with Wi-Fi. (Mike Morones/Staff)
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WASHINGTON — Navy leaders, based on feedback from the fleet, plan major upgrades to shipboard communication and maintenance to make sailors’ and officers’ jobs easier on warships and submarines.

One great leap envisioned under the Reducing Administration Distractions (RAD) campaign is the introduction of Wi-Fi aboard ship, which will be one feature of the fleet’s next-generation computer network.

This system places Wi-Fi hotspots around the vessel, where sailors can access the ship’s local area network. That vastly expands the number of computers that can be online, to include laptops and tablet computers.

“The Wi-Fi capability will predominantly be for official duties only,” Steve Davis, a spokesman for Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR), wrote in an email.

If you’re a glass half full person, Davis is saying there will at least be some time that Wi-Fi is used for unofficial purposes.

However, he adds, “It’s not anticipated at this point that [bring-your-own-device] will be applicable to connect with the network. The primary quality of life benefit will be increased bandwidth.”

Computers are in short supply aboard ship, where there is a limited number of local area network drops. Using laptops at Wi-Fi hotspots in offices and work shops will dramatically reduce wait times for computers, which every sailor needs to use for required training and administrative work. And when the work is done, it also boosts their chances to surf the web or send emails home.

Officials are still working through many of the rules for Wi-Fi, a system that could be susceptible to interception at close range. But this feature will soon be commonly available. It is working on the destroyer McCampbell, the first ship to use the network, and is being installed aboard seven destroyers, two aircraft carriers and one big-deck amphibious assault ship as part of the new computer system, Consolidated Afloat Network and Enterprise Services (CANES).

More than 190 ships, submarines and operations centers will have CANES by 2021, SPAWAR said.

Many Applications

Wi-Fi has many advantages. Sailors could use it to communicate at any point during the day. Leaders such as the chief engineer or the commanding officer could use it to check the status of the ship’s plant. And sailors armed with tablets could immediately report completion of a training session or maintenance check into a central log, which supervisors and chiefs could track real-time. Before a training lecture is missed, they would get a red flag.

Crew members could also use them off-duty as e-readers and download digital books and magazines wirelessly from the ship’s e-library, a concept tested aboard four ships and a sub this year.

As every sailor knows, when you really can’t find the answer, go ask your chief. But what if there were a central repository of information that you could check first, a forum where sailors and chiefs from around the fleet could share gouge and experiences?

That’s the idea behind the SailorWiki.

Officials see this Wikipedia-like site full of sailor-created pages packed with helpful information. An unclassified version could become a central storehouse for facts about personnel policies, instructions and lessons learned. The classified one could be a forum for sailors to discuss tactics, intelligence collection and other secrets.

Rear Adm. Herm Shelanski, the director of the Navy’s Assessment Division who is overseeing the Navy’s RAD campaign, views this as “a way ahead” but said he doesn’t know how quickly it could come to fruition.

Tablets and How-to Videos

The brass launched a Navy-wide innovation experiment in July, asking sailors and civilians to report the biggest time-wasters and then collaborate on ways to fix them. Again and again, they heard complaints about 3M (maintenance and material management). This scheme of checks, paperwork and spot-checks consumes millions of sailor hours every year across ships, squadrons, shops and subs. Not to mention millions of pages and countless amounts of printer toner.

Shelanski sees overhauling this headache-inducing scheme as his task force’s primary mission. Fixing it will require cooperation between bureaucracies and new technologies, all now within reach because of devices such as iPads, which could also improve training and communications across the fleet.

“I think it’s a process that has kind of stagnated over the years, and it’s just ripe for modernization, digitization,” Shelanski said in a September interview.

The RAD campaign’s vision: issuing an unspecified type of tablet computer to every work center and division. In other words, tens of thousands of sailors in the fleet.

The tablets could streamline all general military training. New lectures and updates could instantly be sent to even the fleet’s most far-flung corners.

The screens could be used to share a presentation or just to show notes for the speaker.

Similarly, all of a workshop’s equipment checks will be uploaded to the tablet computer and issued to the techs every time they head out for maintenance.

“Every time he opens it, he knows he has the latest card,” Shelanski explained. “All the changes have been incorporated, and it’s been pushed to him. He doesn’t have to do anything. No more lining out, no more seeing what’s the latest card. He doesn’t have to look it up because it’s there on his tablet. It’s been pushed from the source that owns the card.”

So, say you’re assigned a check that you’ve never done before or one that’s complicated, and you’re not sure how to go about a step. The tablet computer offers a quick solution: how-to videos, much like YouTube offers help about everything from fixing a flat tire to mixing a mimosa. Shelanski envisions the Navy’s videos will feature instructors going step-by-step through a maintenance check. Sailors could watch this as prep or refer to it mid-process.

Shelanski offered an example: A sailor wants to know how to perform maintenance on an electrical generator. The video will “have the expert, walking through that and showing him step-by-step,” Shelanski said. “He can pause, replay if he needs to, or do the first step, then play the second step. We think that will add to the quality of the maintenance.”

Those tablets will come in handy once the check is done, too. The sailor could add any notes as needed and then hit a “submit” button on the tablet, much like any smart phone app. That’s relayed immediately to the supervisor via Wi-Fi.

When the Navy issues tablets, it’s likely they will require the same security and IT rules as laptops and computers that connect to the command’s local area network. Many tablet computers, like iPads, have built-in cameras and microphones, so it’s likely that they’ll be excluded from classified areas aboard ship.

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