February 22

Executive Spotlight: Kevin Coggins, Booz Allen VP for Positioning, Navigation & Timing


Kevin Coggins, vice president for Positioning, Navigation & Timing at Booz Allen Hamilton, recently spoke with ExecutiveBiz for the publication’s latest Executive Spotlight interview regarding the challenges facing U.S. military branches to equip our warfighters with the latest in data management, artificial intelligence and robotics.

In addition, Coggins also discussed the advancement of satellite constellations and other in-orbit systems including the “digital twin” concept as well as the implementation of zero trust architecture to support space-enabled networks and the latest trends for PNT technologies and methods.

“I really think that open architecture systems are going to be game changing in many ways, however, we must have the clear expectation that we will need to upgrade and patch systems throughout their lifecycle. And history shows, if they are not planned, they are not affordable.”

You can read the full Executive Spotlight interview with Kevin Coggins below:

ExecutiveBiz: What can you tell us about the challenges facing our military service branches like the U.S. Army to adjust its operations to account for the complex dynamics of training our warfighters to trust in data, information, and working alongside AI and robotics?

“The keyword here is trust – and specifically, trust from the warfighter that it is safe to offload, or evolve, their human processing in favor of machine processing. The challenges associated with this are challenges we have overcome before – and a specific example comes to mind – the Global Positioning System.

As a young Force Reconnaissance Marine assigned the role of navigator for an amphibious reconnaissance team, I relied on a simple set of tools to ensure highly accurate navigation through rough terrain – a map, compass, ranger beads to mark distance traveled, knowledge that pace count was 69 steps for 100 meters, and my training to use these tools, the stars and terrain.

Through many repetitions on training and operational missions, I gained increased trust in my skills, as did my team. Evolution to a handheld GPS device introduced an additional tool, which provided new information based on complex processing and machine learning hidden inside the capability. Over time, through successful repetitions in training and on operational missions, Warfighters began to trust and even depend on this new capability.

The same will occur today as we enable data and autonomy/robotics for the Warfighter.

There are two challenges we need to seriously consider and account for.

The first challenge is related to synchronization of the pace of change to what the defense institution can bear while maintaining maximum readiness. The advancements enabled by increased information and autonomy/robotics are enabling a velocity and efficiency that we’ve never seen before.

Businesses are innovating at a rapid pace, with the goal of seeing their innovations incorporated in a meaningful way for the Warfighter – however, government funding, contracting, and training timelines can introduce a lag to realizing the operational benefit of these technologies. Innovative approaches, like the Army’s Regionally Aligned Readiness and Modernization Model, or ReARMM, will create more predictable windows to update capabilities and training. Industry should seek to synchronize with approaches like these.

The second challenge is related to becoming overly reliant on technology. GPS offers us some sobering examples of this. In one example, because of the ubiquity and success of GPS, the U.S. Navy stopped training Sailors to manually navigate using sextants.

However, if GPS is denied or degraded, celestial navigation is an important tool to determine your position in a maritime environment with no landmarks. The Navy has restored this critical training to enable the human to successfully navigate should the advanced technology fail, and has also ensured they are not overly reliant on a single technology.

The more concerning example is when there is no fall back, and when the proficiency in the previous method of positioning and navigation has been lost or automated to the point that the system fails without GPS. There are too many examples of the latter. The same can happen as we incorporate additional data, AI and robotics – so we must be prudent and ensure we have alternate and contingency methods to accomplish the mission.”

ExecutiveBiz: With the advancement of satellite constellations and other in-orbit systems, what is the “digital twin” concept and how does it help protect space systems from evolving cyber threats?

“Space systems present a unique challenge because once you build and launch a satellite into orbit, you can no longer test it against potential threats or vulnerabilities – because if you break it, you cannot reach up and fix it. Most space systems are built with function in mind, and cybersecurity as an afterthought – because space is hard.

These satellites are also part of integrated systems with other satellites, ground systems, and most importantly users. This is a complex threat surface to assess and manage. Digital twins are the perfect way to address these challenges.

Digital twins are digital replicas of a system and can range from a complete digital model to a hybrid model that might include actual components and software defined radios to emulate RF links, resulting in a highly accurate emulation.

The GPS SatSim project developed for the Space Force is a great example of a hybrid digital twin that accurately emulated a space system, ground system, and the RF data links joining the two – enabling efficient mapping and mitigation of the threat surface.

With a digital twin, a space system owner can assess the system against a variety of threats, develop and test mitigations, all without interrupting the on-orbit system. Sometimes the mitigations are software patches to the satellite, and sometimes the mitigation is a change to user training. We know that cyber vulnerabilities evolve faster than the systems we are developing – digital twins are a tool that enables us to keep pace.

Digital twins are picking up across a number of sectors, such as aviation, cybersecurity and others including space. I believe digital twins will be adopted by more and more space system owners as an efficient way to manage risks in their future space systems.”

ExecutiveBiz: Why is there a strong urgency to establish resiliency in the space domain and implement zero trust architecture to support space-enabled networks?

“Early space systems and even some recent ones were built with an exclusive focus on the capability they provide, and not necessarily with regards to the threats they might encounter – and in their defense, the capabilities they provide are hard to do. I believe the sense of urgency to establish resiliency in the space domain is because of increased awareness of the threats and vulnerabilities that create risk in these systems.

I’ll use GPS as an example of what happens when you don’t think about the security aspects. The GPS signal that is used in the majority of civilian applications, which is accurately labeled C/A code, lacks encryption. It is widely published that you can download code from GitHub and load that code onto a commercially available software defined radio and broadcast a GPS signal.

This spoofed GPS signal can fool most of the devices out there – and when you talk about autonomy, emergency 911, or other capabilities, this becomes serious fast. A GPS receiver is just a computer, and one that blindly believes in the data that enters through its antenna. That is absolute trust.

Zero trust is the opposite. With zero trust, you are not going to blindly believe that the information your system is consuming is trustworthy. Instead, the system may look at other attributes of the signal to determine if it is legitimate. For example, is the GPS signal behaving as if it is coming from a moving satellite or a stationary source, or is there additional information in the signal that can be used to verify legitimacy?

There are many concerns about encryption being compromised, bypassed or outright broken – especially by technologies such as quantum computing. If encryption is the only layer of defense for a network or space system, then it might only be a matter of time until the system is compromised. Zero trust architectures are critical to ensuring the security of our space systems, especially as threats continue to evolve.”

ExecutiveBiz: What are the key trends to notice as PNT technologies and methods continue to evolve into the new year with open architecture systems, LEO satellites, Long Range Navigation and quantum computing all playing a role?

“The underlying driver of these key trends is what we just talked about – defense systems and critical infrastructure are critically dependent on accurate time and position information.  Without this information, they face severe challenges.

The first key trend is that the methods of access to trusted PNT information are about to evolve.  GPS and its enablers will be a part of the cornerstone, however there are going to be other players with unique methods that solve some of the challenges plaguing GPS.  There are several entry level players looking to provide capability from terrestrial and low-earth orbit – the challenge they will have to achieving scale.

The second key trend is really about the affordability of adopting new technology and pacing the threat.  Open architectures are a key consideration.  A more critical consideration is recognizing that you will have to upgrade your systems as threats evolve – and this drives not only technical considerations, but expectations management around lifecycle management, future costs and affordability.

This is perhaps one of the most important lessons learned from our journey with GPS.  You may not get a chance to replace or upgrade a system for five, ten or even twenty years. Unfortunately, and historically, that’s the norm for many systems.

I really think that open architecture systems are going to be game changing in many ways, however, we must have the clear expectation that we will need to upgrade and patch systems throughout their lifecycle.  And history shows, if they are not planned, they are not affordable.”



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