Many local companies are developing data fusion technology used to refine information from multiple sources and provide a clearer picture of what's being examined.
In years past, surveillance operators would sit at consoles made up of multiple screens - one for radar, one for thermal imaging, one for magnetic sensors, and that's just for starters. Today, in many instances, each operator sits before one large flat-panel display with a touchscreen.
That's how operators of General Dynamics Canada's Maritime Helicopter Project are equipped.
Paul Steers, chief engineer of the Ottawa-based project, has helped create an integrated system for helicopters flying out from Halifax to carry out tasks such as anti-submarine warfare, support for shoreline operations, fisheries patrol and search and rescue.
"You've got such a large amount of info provided to the crew," Mr. Steers says. "It's about the ability to manage and fuse it, present it not as an overwhelming mass, but as the crew needs it, in a layered, nicely integrated package."
Helicopter operators have the option to bring up individual pieces of information, such as a radar reading, on their screen or to overlay it with another sensor. The operator can also send this information to someone working off-site.
Data fusion allows for staff workload reduction, and continues to make defence and security more user-friendly, Mr. Steers says.
Many applications for this new technology are designed for marine applications, such as monitoring the Arctic for security threats or environmental damage, but the potential for land-based applications exists as well.
DATA FUSION IN OTTAWA
Rami Abielmona, vice-president of research and engineering at Larus Technologies and a 2011 OBJ/Ottawa Chamber of Commerce Forty Under 40 recipient, says data fusion solutions could be used at the borders between Canada and the United States, as well as at river ports in Ottawa. The city's wealth of high-profile buildings, including embassies and government headquarters, also make the nation's capital a hub for defence and security applications.
Calling Ottawa a "hotbed" for the industry, Mr. Abielmona says the plethora of local defence and security innovations have attracted many events and organizations to the region.
"A lot of the (data fusion) projects and programs that are run in Canada are based out of Ottawa," he says. "They may be out in the Maritimes, but a lot of these ideas come to fruition in boardrooms in Ottawa."
One example is the Canadian Tracking and Fusion Group, founded in Ottawa in 2009 to bring together members of the data fusion community to exchange information on state-of-the-art Canadian innovation and discuss the needs of government and industry groups.
The inaugural CTFG workshop was hosted in Ottawa last year at the Shirleys Bay campus of Defence Research and Development Canada, where approximately 75 attendees from across the country gathered to discuss data fusion and its future.
The second annual workshop was set to be hosted this spring, but was postponed until the fall due to impending workforce reductions at the Department of National Defence. It will be rescheduled shortly, says Mr. Abielmona, who is also one of the founding members of CTFG.
In the meantime, the 15 employees at Ottawa-based Larus Technologies continue to develop the Nexus Fusion Engine, which uses algorithms to monitor multiple data streams, filter out unnecessary information, and then fuse it into one source.
The algorithms allow the system to continue learning and changing its method of operation over time. If the system is used to monitor a property and a car drives by late at night, it sends a message to the operator. If the operator then signals that cars are permitted during that timeframe, the system will not flag a similar car in the future. Over time, it learns to adapt to its environment and will only send alerts for problems that are of real concern.
The company has yet to make a sale in Ottawa, but it has been used across Canada and completed various installations for the Canadian Forces.
While small companies are developing specific data fusion solutions, the giants are jumping on board, too.
Raytheon is the world's largest provider of radar. Its Canadian arm has ventured into the data fusion industry and is installing its integrated systems - using proprietary radar technology that is able to follow the curvature of the earth - in the Black Sea where many unauthorized ships and people try to navigate.
Raytheon has also worked in the Arctic, where it monitors ice floes, watches for ships dumping waste into the ocean, issues iceberg alerts and gives tsunami warnings. Its suite of services is called "maritime domain awareness."
But information overload is a constant concern, as well as the obsession with automation - problems that General Dynamics's Mr. Steers deals with every day.
"There's a tendency to want to automate a whole bunch of processes," he says. "But there is a reason a human is in the loop on a number of these decisions."
The best data fusion solutions, he says, are those that inform the operator of all decisions being made, with an option to overrule them.
There's no question that any large defence and security company hoping to survive in the industry will have to develop data fusion technology, he says. All branches of the Canadian Forces - whether on sea, land or air - can stand to benefit from advances in this industry.
"I think this is an absolute paramount challenge for us," Mr. Steers says. "We need to stay on top of it."
SENSOR FUSION VS. DATA FUSION
Although "sensor fusion" and "data fusion" are used synonymously throughout various sources, there is a difference between the two.
Sensor fusion involves gathering data from various sensors and fusing them together.
Data fusion integrates sensor data as well as other data sources, including operator reports, databases, Internet sources and other live data.
EXAMPLES OF SENSORS:
• Sonar (and other acoustic measurements)
• Infrared or thermal imaging
• TV cameras
• Seismic sensors
• Magnetic sensors
• Sonobuoys (small sonar systems dropped from aircraft at various locations into the water)
• Accelerometers (a device measuring acceleration)