From their perch in the operations center at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., security analysts peer down like hawks over the Naval Research Lab, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling and a half-dozen other major military installations scattered around the national capital region.

It takes just 10 people to maintain constant surveillance over all those disparate sites, “but you need machines to help you,” said Robert Baker, command information officer for the Naval Facilities Engineering Command. Those machines include a complex network of cameras and sensors, supported by analytics software. When the software spots a suspect event – traffic headed in the wrong direction, for example – that video feed gets pushed to the foreground for human analysis.

This is just one example of how the military looks to technology to improve physical security.

The real-world influence of technology is evident across the military: Everything from targeting systems to logistics to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance has been enhanced in some way by IT. Physical security represents an emerging frontier, where artificial intelligence, machine learning, autonomous technologies and other advances could give the military an edge.

Force multiplier

At Edwards Air Force Base in California last summer, a security team installed a ground-based radar system to monitor a wide landscape using electro-optical and infrared sensors. The team turned to technology to give them insight across a massive 308,000-acre facility.

“The driving need for this system is to proactively defend Edwards AFB. Given the mission of Edwards, and how much terrain we have, we need a system that can overcome the difficulties of patrolling the vast amount of land Edwards presents to our patrols,” Staff Sgt. Alexander Deguzman, an installation security technician with the 412th security forces squadron said in a news release.

As at the Navy Yard, the effort at Edwards is all about using some combination of remote sensing, networked surveillance and machine intelligence to create a force multiplier in physical security. Analysts say such initiatives could make bases and installations markedly safer at a lower cost and with less labor required.

The rise of artificial intelligence is a critical technology moving forward. Security often involves the constant observation of multiple video and data feeds for prolonged periods of time. Human analysts get tired. They look away for a moment. In short, they miss stuff.

“A human can look at things once or twice, but after 100 times they start to lose their edge,” said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Bob Elder, chair of the cyber and emerging technologies division at the National Defense Industrial Association. “AI goes beyond what a human can do, because it doesn’t get tired.”

Elder envisions a future in the near-term in which routine surveillance can be carried out by software-supported machines, with computers scanning for anomalies and alerting human analysts to potential threats. That saves on labor. In addition, such as approach also would allow the military to use less highly-skilled operators, relying instead on the machine’s expertise and accuracy.

Eyes in the sky

Industry’s interest in this subject has helped bring AI and autonomy to the fore as potential security assets. With the rise of the drones and the imminent arrival of driverless cars, some experts are looking to autonomy as the next logical step in military security.

Drones alone don’t offer a security fix: Their batteries run down too fast. The military might however consider the use of tethered drones, autonomous ISR assets that can hover in place and remain attached to a power source for ongoing operations. Put one at each corner of a base camp and leaders can put together a big-picture view of any approaching hazard.

“This kind of solution is really smart, because you can constantly feed it power, you don’t have to worry about it flying away, and if someone tries to damage it or take control of it, you know about it right away,” said Steve Surfaro, chairman of the Security Industry Association public safety working group.

Another key industry trend, biometrics, may also point the way forward on physical security. “Investing in facial recognition software … can improve perimeter security by automating aspects of it to speed up entry to bases for those authorized and focus screening attention on those that represent a risk,” according to a Deloitte report on smart military bases titled “Byting the Bullet.”

The networking needs

To make the most of the technological imperative around security, experts say, the military will have to give serious thought to issues of infrastructure.

Security is becoming a data function: Sensor streams, video feeds, drone surveillance and other methodologies all will require robust network support and substantial compute resources. The data will need to flow freely, even in great quantities, with ample processing available to put it to use.

Much of the processing will be done in the cloud, “but you still need to have a reliable connection to that cloud, which means you want diversity and redundancy. At a minimum you want two connections and ideally you want three ways of doing it – wires, line of sight wireless, and satellite,” Elder said. “You need a reliable way to get to your cloud services.”

Such an implementation will require, at the least, a significant amount of bandwidth. At the Navy Yard, Baker said he is able to overcome that hurdle through thoughtful network design. In other words: Rather than pushing all the information back to the operations center for processing, new video and sensor analytics takes place on the edge, shrinking the overall networking demand.

“The more processing you can do at the edge of the network, the less robust your network needs to be,” he said. Efficient network design weeds out routine activity “and then the really interesting information is being sent for human analysis.”

While emerging technologies can enhance the military’s security operations, some argue that IT capabilities are not, in themselves, a rationale for upgrading systems that may already be meeting mission. Budgetary constraints apply.

“You could make processing faster, but what is the threat that we are trying to counter? If we are seeing zero incidents, why we would gold-plate that area? We want to be good stewards of the taxpayer dollars,” Baker said. “At the same time, if there was some high-risk area where we needed to do that better, we would absolutely want to put resources against that.”