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Tech support: How Wi-Fi, tablets and more will improve your life at sea

Oct. 15, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
PCU Minnesota MWM 20130812
A sailor uses a tablet aboard the attack submarine Minnesota on Aug. 12. The Navy is hoping to add tens of thousands of tablets to the fleet to make work center assignments smoother on ship. (Mike Morones / Staff)
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The world's foremost fleet runs on coffee and 'hooyah,' but it also motors by on outdated technology: a shortage of computers, clunky software, and lots and lots of paperwork.

The world's foremost fleet runs on coffee and 'hooyah,' but it also motors by on outdated technology: a shortage of computers, clunky software, and lots and lots of paperwork.

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The world’s foremost fleet runs on coffee and “hooyah,” but it also motors by on outdated technology: a shortage of computers, clunky software, and lots and lots of paperwork.

Sure, destroyers can shoot down supersonic missiles and pilots will soon have displays inside their helmets. But many of the systems that sailors depend on most for their jobs are relics of the 20th century. Clipboards in an age of tablet computers. Step-by-step manuals in an age of YouTube.

Even scheduling and performing repairs, a duty for most of the fleet, is “a heavy administrative burden,” a paperwork drill — even a straight-up “nightmare,” as sailors have told officials.

Now there’s good news: Navy leaders have heard your feedback and envision radical upgrades over the next few years to make your jobs easier with tablet computers, how-to videos, sailor-run websites and greater automation. Some of the changes they’re working on:

An end to paper. Officials are looking into tablet computers, such as the Apple iPad, that sailors could use on the job in the fleet for everything from training to maintenance.

Easy online tutorials. Innovators envision step-by-step instructional videos that sailors could watch for training purposes or to prep for and conduct maintenance. There’s even an effort to launch SailorWiki, a sailor-run forum where sailors can share information, references and gouge, similar to Wikipedia.

Less admin. A system will automatically push the right checks to work centers, based on what gear they’re assigned, saving sailors from hours of time-consuming pen-and-ink changes.

Wi-Fi. When they finish a job or training lecture, sailors could simply click a “complete” button on their tablet and immediately report it via the ship’s wireless, part of the latest computer network being installed aboard ship.

Many of these changes, like tablet computers and SailorWiki, will take years and sizable investments, but officials say they are more committed than ever to reducing demands on the deck plates and keeping the best sailors. The brass hopes to do this by harnessing new and inexpensive technology.

“Our new Internet offers us an opportunity at the ground level to try this stuff out,” said Rear Adm. Herm Shelanski, who is overseeing the Navy’s RAD campaign to “reduce administrative distractions.”

“If we see some success early on, we could be able to emphasize the great advancements in this and push this forward in the Navy quicker,” Shelanski said.

Tablets and how-to videos

The brass launched a Navy-wide innovation experiment in July, asking sailors and civilians to report the biggest time-wasters and then collaborate on ways to fix them. Again and again, they heard complaints about 3M (maintenance and material management). This scheme of checks, paperwork and spot-checks consumes millions of sailor-hours every year across ships, squadrons, shops and subs. Not to mention millions of pages and countless amounts of printer toner.

Shelanski sees overhauling this headache-inducing scheme as his task force’s primary mission. Fixing it will require cooperation between bureaucracies and new technologies, all now within reach because of devices such as iPads, which could also improve training and communications across the fleet.

“I think it’s a process that has kind of stagnated over the years, and it’s just ripe for modernization, digitization,” Shelanski said in a September interview.

The RAD campaign’s vision: issuing an unspecified type of tablet computer to every work center and division. In other words, to tens of thousands of sailors in the fleet.

The e-tablets could streamline all general military training. New lectures and updates could instantly be sent to even the fleet’s most far-flung corners. The screens could be used to share a presentation or just to show notes for the speaker.

Similarly, all of a workshop’s equipment checks will be uploaded to the tablet computer and issued to the techs every time they head out for maintenance.

“Every time he opens it, he knows he has the latest card,” Shelanski explained. “All the changes have been incorporated, and it’s been pushed to him. He doesn’t have to do anything. No more lining out, no more seeing what’s the latest card. He doesn’t have to look it up because it’s there on his tablet. It’s been pushed from the source that owns the card.”

So, say you’re assigned a check that you’ve never done before or one that’s complicated, and you’re not sure how to go about a step.

The tablet computer offers a quick solution: how-to videos, much like how YouTube offers help about everything from fixing a flat tire to mixing a mimosa. Shelanski envisions the Navy’s videos will feature instructors going step-by-step through a maintenance check. Sailors could watch this as prep or refer to it mid-process.

Shelanski offered an example: A sailor wants to know how to perform maintenance on an electrical generator. The video will “have the expert, walking through that and showing him step-by-step,” Shelanski said. “He can pause, replay if he needs to, or do the first step, then play the second step. We think that will add to the quality of the maintenance.”

Those tablets will come in handy once the check is done, too. The sailor could add any notes as needed and then hit a “submit” button on their tablet, much like any smartphone app. That’s relayed immediately to the supervisor via Wi-Fi.

Yes, you read that right. The fleet is getting wired for wireless Internet.

Wi-Fi installation

Wi-Fi is one feature of the next-generation computer network being installed aboard ship. This system places Wi-Fi hotspots around the vessel, where sailors can access the ship’s local area network. That vastly expands the number of computers that can be online, to include laptops and tablet computers.

“The Wi-Fi capability will predominantly be for official duties only,” said Steve Davis, a spokesman for the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command, in an email.

If you’re a glass-half-full person, Davis is saying there will at least be some time that Wi-Fi is used for unofficial purposes.

However, he adds, “It’s not anticipated at this point that [bring-your-own-device] will be applicable to connect with the network. The primary quality-of-life benefit will be increased bandwidth.”

Computers are in short supply aboard ship, where there is a limited number of local area network drops. Using laptops at Wi-Fi hotspots in offices and workshops will dramatically reduce wait times for computers, which every sailor needs to use for required training and administrative work. And when the work is done, it also boosts their chances to surf the web or send emails home.

Officials are still working through many of the rules for Wi-Fi, a system that could be susceptible to interception at close range. But this feature will soon be commonly available. It is working on the destroyer McCampbell, the first ship to use the network, and is being installed aboard seven destroyers, two aircraft carriers and one big-deck amphib as part of the new computer system, Consolidated Afloat Network and Enterprise Services.

More than 190 ships, subs and operations centers will have CANES by 2021, SPAWAR said.

When the Navy issues tablets, it’s likely they will require the same security and IT rules as laptops and computers that connect to the command’s local area network. Many tablet computers, like iPads, have built-in cameras and microphones, so it’s likely that they’ll be excluded from classified areas aboard ship.

Many applications

Wi-Fi has lots of advantages. Sailors could use it to communicate at any point during the day. Leaders such as the chief engineer or the commanding officer could use it to check the status of the ship’s plant. And sailors armed with tablets could immediately report completion of a training session or maintenance check into a central log, which supervisors and chiefs could track in real time. Before a training lecture is missed, they’d get a red flag.

Crew members could also use them off-duty as e-readers and download digital books and magazines wirelessly from the ship’s e-library, a concept tested aboard four ships and a sub this year.

As every sailor knows, when you really can’t find the answer, go ask your chief. But what if there were a central repository of information that you could check first, a forum where sailors and chiefs from around the fleet could share gouge and experiences?

That’s the idea behind Sailor Wiki.

Officials see this Wikipedia-like site as full of sailor-created pages packed with helpful information. An unclassified version could become a central storehouse for facts about personnel policies, instructions and lessons learned. The classified one could be a forum for sailors to discuss tactics, intelligence collection and other secrets.

Shelanski views this as “a way ahead” but said he doesn’t know how quickly it could come to fruition.

Maintenance made easier

There are many other reasons for optimism, especially when it comes to maintenance. A third of the fleet has a more user-friendly software for scheduling checks, SKED 3.2. Earlier versions of the program were hard to use, but software designer Antech Systems says the new program is a leap forward that allows for dynamic scheduling, improved workflow management and improvements to tracking metrics. It also allows for ship-specific maintenance profiles, which officials are in the process of improving.

But the root of the problem comes down to the instructions themselves: better explanation equals better maintenance. And there’s a lot of room for improvement, one top official made clear.

Take the test for watertight doors. Most sailors are familiar with this routine check, where the door’s edges are chalked to see if they leave a mark on the gasket. Solid chalk marks show that the door’s inside edges are tight against the gasket and will keep out water.

“Should be relatively simple, you would think,” said Vice Adm. Tom Copeman, the head of Naval Surface Forces, in a recent interview. But the check, he continued, runs “22 pages, single-spaced. It’s not tailored to the ship. The maintenance man has to figure out which one of the … between eight and 12 different versions of the watertight door he’s got,” he said, adding: “We’ve made it pretty challenging for your average maintenance man.”

Fleet quality of life would be significantly boosted if sailors carried iPads with tailored maintenance checks loaded on them. And Wi-Fi one day might allow them to message technical support from the workspace, and even send photos.

Contractors like Northrop Grumman are bidding on the contract to install the next-generation network, CANES, aboard ships. Meanwhile, the fleet rollout has been hit by budget cuts as the install is typically done in ship overhauls, which have been sharply curtailed in the past two years. For instance, the destroyer Milius, the first ship to get CANES installed, does not yet have it up and running because of funding issues during its availability, a Navy source said.

The Navy is eager to start harnessing mobile and wireless technology to make sailor’s jobs easier, even if the Wi-Fi rollout will occur over the next eight years.

“Not all ships are going to have Wi-Fi right away. It’s going to be timed as ships come into major repairs,” Shelanski said.

“Tablets are a great interim way to do some of this very stuff. So we’re hoping to get this really moving.”

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