Video in the War Zone: The Current State of Military Streaming

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As the quality of video increases, some might argue that it negates the need to rely so heavily on metadata. Yet most soldiers, the interviewee went on to say, would sacrifice real-time video if it meant losing pertinent metadata. In other words, situational awareness is as much about the video’s textual data as it is about the video itself. In some cases, metadata could be the difference between life and death.

Security Challenges

Now that the video feeds have been acquired, and are about to be used in tactical or strategic operations within the theater of engagement, another challenge emerges: deciding which analyst, solider, or command staffer is authorized to view which streams.

The closest civilian scenario might be an enterprise video platform or videoconferencing solution, in which all meetings are broadcast but only certain employees are allowed to view more sensitive meetings. Yet in an active military engagement, the stakes are much higher than just corporate espionage. Despite all the war terminology used in business—and the military grade, or mil-spec, assurances that surround enterprise security and business television sales pitches—militaries themselves have a particular need to efficiently and effectively balance need-to-know concerns with making sure that pertinent data is available in a very dynamic and fluid environment. In other words, the speed of war far outpaces the speed of business.

Having said that, many military video platforms rely on a factor much more common in enterprise: Active Directory.

Like their enterprise counterparts, the military’s use of Active Directory allows for very granular rights management. Whether it’s a role-based authentication for a particular video stream, or even on a per-soldier basis for a brief window of time, properly implemented Active Directory acts as a gatekeeper.

One additional long-term benefit in using Active Directory, one interviewee says, is the ability to share content across commands and even across branches of a military. Consider, for example, a naval fleet, where each ship is— for lack of a less obvious metaphor—an island of information. Those islands each contain a video platform that can deliver incoming information to various roles or even individual sailors, but if a sailor moves from one ship to another in the midst of an engagement, the video content might not necessarily follow her.

Using a common authentication technology such as Active Directory, however, it’s possible to foresee a future scenario in which content follows the sailor when her assignment is updated. It’s only possible though if each of these “islands” of information is aware of the other “islands” regardless of geographical proximity.

Consumer Technologies Go to War

Anyone who has seen Act of Valor, or similar movies that detail the tradecraft (intelligence and espionage techniques) of special forces tactical teams, might assume that militaries have very advanced streaming solutions. Movies portray a reality that seems to allow HD-quality streams, from a UAV or even from on-person tactical equipment, to be transmitted halfway across the globe with no visible gear.

The reality is that this type of scenario is more likely to be true for the elite or special forces of any given country, including the U.S. The reason has less to do with budgets— although one could certainly argue that special forces get better gear than average units—and more to do with the ability to buy outside the traditional government purchasing channels.

According to several interviewees, the way that more advanced streaming technologies find their way into a military or three-letter agency is based on innovative thinking as much as it is based on GSA guidelines or traditional defense contractors.

One interviewee notes that special forces are more likely to look to commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technologies to deploy communications tools for a given operation rapidly, later bringing these tools on board in quantity for continued operational advancement. An example might be an encoder appliance, which contains the printed circuit board (PCB), power supply, and housing.

In a quick deployment, the encoder could be purchased off the shelf and used the way a civilian would use the same product. If the product proves itself, both in terms of quality and durability, then future RFIs or proposals could make a formal request to reduce the weight or moving parts of the encoder, bringing it up to mil-spec levels in the process. Additional proposals could be made to modify the PCB so that it fits better into existing tactical gear, and these modified PCBs would then be tested by a precision measurement and equipment lab (PMEL) to verify their hardening, durability, and appropriateness for combat situations.

Special forces seem to be more agile and willing to try commercial standards-based technologies too as a way to disseminate information rapidly across all team members.

So what are some of the commercial technologies that appeal to elite forces? It turns out that H.264 and its quality encoding have been adopted across multiple countries’ armed forces.

One company noted that its low latency H.264 encoders have gained popularity due to their ability to work at the intersection of an industry-standard codec (AVC or H.264) and newer mobile devices. The products are built to military specifications and can operate in extreme conditions without the need for fans and other moving parts. Yet as the RFI noted above indicates, military deployment of industry standards for sending and receiving video lags behind consumer adoption, in part due to issues such as the need for extremely low latency encoding and delivery.

H.265 is also considered a “game changer” by at least one interviewee, given its ability to raise the quality bar for those “lowest common denominator” scenarios as well as present better representations of complex data structures. One interviewee went as far as to compare the difference between what the military uses today and the potential of H.265 as being the difference between seeing the general outline of a target and the actual facial features of a target.

Another area of interest appears to be the use of ABR technologies, as least when it comes to on-demand content. The value proposition is the same as it is for civilian ABR users; those with high-bandwidth capabilities will receive the highest-quality stream while still allowing for those on limited-connectivity bandwidth to receive some of the content. The emphasis on low latency and metadata accuracy, however, cannot be overstated, which might eliminate the use of civilian ABR technologies to only on-demand use cases for the time being.

Conclusion

Readers interested in knowing more about the use of streaming in military environments can find a number of companies in the streaming industry that have governmental (federal, state, and local) sales forces or which claim to sell into the ISR or military communities. Streaming Media offers a special thanks to representatives of those companies who were willing to speak anonymously on the phone or in person, providing the anecdotal details on which most of this article is based.

This article appears in the January/February 2015 issue of Streaming Media magazine as "Streaming in the War Zone."

Military image via Shutterstock.

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