Amazon Web Services helps Navy transform its digital capabilities

Damon Harding, Digital Group Cloud lead at NAVAIR Headquarters, explains the benefits of restructuring NAVAIR’s cloud business and technical responsibilities to take advantage of its partnership with Amazon Web Services during a recent event sponsored by the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School.

The Navy has partnered with Amazon Web Services (AWS) to move its data and analytics into the cloud, improving real-time access to vital information by defense personnel stationed around the globe. Last month, Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD) personnel had a unique opportunity to learn more about how that migration is being accomplished and what some of the early dividends of the move have been.

The U.S. Naval Test Pilot School (USNTPS) hosted the presentation as part of its quarterly Innovation Speaker Series before a live — and socially distanced — audience of students and instructors at the River’s Edge Catering and Conference Center at Naval Air Station Patuxent River as well as for base personnel through Microsoft Teams.

Kitty Nix, a senior manager with AWS and the Navy Account Team Lead, explained that AWS promotes innovation by anticipating customer needs and working backwards from there to create appropriate solutions. “The customer may not always be right, but they’re never wrong,” Nix said, paraphrasing a favorite quote of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. “They are frequently dissatisfied, and a lot of times they don’t even know why they’re dissatisfied. They just know that they’re not happy with what’s going on.”

Nix explained that cloud computing — which Amazon defines as the rapid delivery of information technology resources via the internet, offered to customers on a pay-as-you-go basis — offers the Navy several key advantages over owning and operating its own data centers. With a traditional data center, Nix said, “you [need] space for the servers, you have to pay for heating and cooling, you have to pay for all the ... network cables, you have to pay for the software that’s on the servers. You have to pay for the people to update the servers.”

“The benefit of the AWS cloud is that we provide computing, storage, application development, networking, [and] all the infrastructure you need for any technology applications,” Nix said. “You have shared responsibility for the security and configuration, but you don’t have to pay for any of the infrastructure that houses all of that information.”

Nix said that AWS recognizes the importance of security and the need to stay a step ahead of the nation’s adversaries when managing the Navy’s data and analytics. “You hear the secretary of the Navy talk about how information warfare is a huge part of the future,” Nix said. “We appreciate and understand how important security is to that piece of the puzzle.” Nix pointed out that the Navy's Enterprise Resource Planning system is one of the largest military systems currently in the cloud, and it was rolled out 10 months ahead of schedule."

Damon Harding, Digital Group Cloud Lead at Naval Air Systems Command Headquarters, explained that the Navy has divided its cloud team into business and technical groups to better align those functions. The Department of Defense and the Navy are jointly responsible for security and the shared services.

Harding explained that NAVAIR is currently conducting a prototype analytics activity on the cloud system in partnership with the fleet support for the T-45 Goshawk jet trainer, Atlantic Test Ranges, and NAWCAD’s cloud execution agent designed to provide engineers with quicker and persistent access to fleet and flight test data. This will reduce the time it takes to get flight test data and will also provide access to analytics and machine learning tools.

To execute the prototype, NAVAIR partnered with AWS’s Envisioning Engineering team to construct what is called a “data lake” to provide engineers, analysts, and data scientists with a method for continuous data ingestion as well as the ability to search, access, and perform data analytics and machine learning. Harding said that the data lake prototype could end up defining a structured way for all Navy platforms to perform data analytics on fleet and maintenance data.

“That has been a wonderful experience so far,” Harding said of working with the Envision Engineering team, which creates rapid proof-of-concept prototypes for public sector customers. “They have really come through and solved some difficult problems.”

Harding said that if the data lake prototype is successful, “we can replicate this across every single platform.”

Ravinda Weerasinghe, a technical product manager at AWS who works on the Envision Engineering team, demonstrated how engineers can swiftly create datasets and projects and use them to perform complex analytics on aircraft performance. For example, with just a few mouse clicks engineers can call up information on instrumentation outputs and flight track data for any number of aircraft and pilots over multiple sorties.

“We help them visualize the data and hopefully they will gain insights,” Weerasinghe said.

“AWS has thousands of commercial customers, and we have spent a lot of time and money failing fast forward,” Nix explained. “And the government is benefitting from all those lessons.”

Be on the lookout for future Innovation Series events that will feature pioneers with cutting-edge ideas and achievements in aviation and technology.