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Secure Networks for Military and First Responders
Most of us are on the Web every day. Whether we're reading the news or downloading music to an MP3 player, we rarely stop to think about how the Internet works. That's because it's so easy to use.

NASA engineers would like to operate and communicate with satellites, robots and spacecraft just as easily. In 2003, engineers at NASA's Glenn Research Center took the first step toward making that goal a reality when they sent a miniature Cisco router into low Earth orbit on a satellite. The team proved that Internet Protocols can be used to communicate with satellites.

Photo of vanImage right: This van served as the mobile test bed when the Internet Protocol router technology was field tested at the Glenn Research Center. Credit: NASA

"We wanted to put the Internet in space because it will make it far easier to design, build, test, and later operate new satellite systems. It will also allow us to tie our missions together on one, easy-to-use system," said Phil Paulsen, project manager in Glenn's Space Communications Office.

"Not only will it improve efficiency, it will allow us to share data with others, like researchers, universities, agencies and communications companies, who normally can't access our complex systems," he added.

Before the team sent the device into space, they had to protect it from hackers who might steal or manipulate the data it was designed to collect. To do that, NASA worked with Western DataCom, an Ohio company that creates hardware to secure voice, video and data transmission over Internet-based networks. With NASA's help, the company developed a secure router that encrypts data sent from the satellite to Earth.

Since then, the technology has emerged as a valuable tool for the military and first responders, such as police and fire departments.

The Benefits
In the hours and days after the September 11 terrorist attacks, communications between first responders and emergency-management officials were severely disrupted. New York City's Emergency Operations Center, designed to coordinate rescue efforts in a major terrorist attack, was housed in the World Trade Center and destroyed.

Communications systems for the police and fire departments were temporarily disabled and senior emergency-management officials couldn't contact first responders. Because police and firefighters couldn't communicate directly with each other, many firefighters within striking distance of safety never received a police warning on the impending collapse of the South Tower. This tragedy drove home the need for new communications systems to secure our country and improve our ability to respond to terrorist attacks.

Photo of secure networking equipmentImage left: Western DataCom's Executive Travel Case sets up secure Internet connections for the U.S. Joint Forces Command. Credit: Western DataCom

Today, first responders from Cook County, Ill., the New York Port Authority, and the New Jersey Port Authority are using Western DataCom's secure equipment to prepare for similar disasters. The system will allow secure communications between moving units on land, in the sea and in the air, preventing a communication breakdown.

"If it works on a satellite, it will work anywhere," said Phil Ardire, president and CEO of Western DataCom, Inc. "The same basic technology we created with NASA is what we're using for the other applications. We've just been adding more and more capability."

Away from home, the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have increased the need for a mobile, interoperable, and secure communications system for the U.S. military.

In 2004, the Army used the secure mobile router system co-developed by Western DataCom and NASA on a tethered balloon, called the Persistent Threat Detection System, in Operation Iraqi Freedom. The system permits military technical operations centers in Iraq to send secure high-speed voice, video, and data communications to the field through tactically deployed mobile units. According to Western DataCom, this was the first use of such technology during war.

The Future of Secure Mobile Networks
The potential applications for this technology are by no means limited to satellites, wars and emergencies. In fact, it could be coming to your computer or cell phone soon.

Western DataCom recently received a $100,000 Glenn Alliance for Technology Exchange award. The company used the award to design a small personal computer encryption card for consumers. When users connect to the Internet wirelessly at a hotel or coffee shop, for example, the card will act as a shield outside of the computer, protecting its hard drive from worms, viruses and other attacks.

Meanwhile, Paulsen and a team of NASA Glenn engineers are developing high-level requirements for Internet-based command, control, communication and information systems to support future missions to the moon and Mars.

More Information:
+ NASA's Glenn Research Center
+ Western DataCom
+ Spinoffs Magazine story

Courtesy of the NASA Innovative Partnerships Program office and the NASA Spinoff Office