Johns Hopkins APL Flexes Rapid Prototyping Muscles, Impacts Navy

The story of how the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) turned a three-year air and missile defense prototyping plan into a working version in just 12 months is a tale of collaboration, innovation, and intelligent risk-taking.

In late 2016, APL received a Missile Defense Agency (MDA) request to develop an advanced prototype of the next-generation mission planning tool, which MDA named Cerberus. The challenge was to advance the state of the art in Integrated Air and Missile Defense (IAMD) force-level mission planning, long term, and fill gaps in ballistic missile defense planning identified by warfighters, near term.

The Cerberus project team laid out a three-year plan to design, build, field and iterate an advanced prototype. That plan included one field installation in two years, but just 12 months later, APL demonstrated an initial working version.

Four Navy admirals witnessed that demonstration and the direction was given to start fielding the Cerberus prototype as soon as possible.

“Our sponsor was willing to take risks and trusted us to complete the task,” said Travis Heslop, Cerberus project manager. “We are a solution-oriented team that understands the current challenges and looks to find solutions that will close some of the largest gaps. That’s how we are successful.”

The Cerberus prototype provides the warfighter with ship placement and combat system configuration options to successfully carry out planning for the ballistic missile defense mission.

“The IAMD planning domain is extremely complex. Warfighters need planning tools that are easy to use, quick to show results and able to give them detailed insight into the performance estimates,” explained Michelle Bowser, the Cerberus integration lead. “Cerberus is just beginning to address these challenges. With preloaded databases of intel-assessed plan components, algorithms and hardware that speed up the calculations, and progressive displays of results that facilitate quick analysis, Cerberus has already started to make a big impact.”

The Cerberus team — consisting of ballistic missile defense mission planning experts, engineers, computer scientists, physicists and human systems engineers from across the Lab — promptly delivered the first build of the prototype into the field as an Experimental Unit in the summer of 2018 and began deploying it across Department of Defense and Navy sites and ships to collect user feedback.

“It was immediately impactful,” said Derrick Treichler, the Cerberus technical lead. “On one deployment, we set up a system and trained users. Overnight, one of the users entered several plans and was waiting for us with tons of questions the next morning. He was eager to learn more about the system.”

After a few months of successful tests and several deployments, the sponsor challenged the team to evolve the capabilities of the Cerberus prototype even further.

“Hearing how well the product worked from the end user was great,” Treichler said. “If we provide a product, but the resulting product is not used, we view that as a failure. Our success lies not only in satisfaction but in usage — that’s how we’ll know we did a good job.”

A year after the second challenge, the team delivered again — demonstrating the Lab’s renowned rapid prototyping ability — with an updated user interface, rebuilt from scratch, to meet changing user needs and reinstate Cerberus as a web application.

“We redesigned the entire user interface and made it more flexible for future updates and usage,” Treichler explained. “We based the redesign on feedback from sailors who had used the prototype system. The updates closed gaps and shortfalls of the original software and gave tactical planners new capabilities to improve planning. Cerberus has become more than just a proof of concept. It is a usable product right off the shelf.”

“Having such a wide variety of expertise right here at the Lab is what sets APL apart to accomplish such an audacious goal,” Bowser said. “In my role, I feel like a conductor in an orchestra, simply providing a drumbeat for extremely talented people to do what they do best.”

So far the team has installed eight experimental units across the globe, with plans to provide several more upgraded versions before transitioning the prototype to an operational system. Transition and eventual deployment to the fleet in large numbers is expected to happen within the next few years.

“We’re not done yet,” Heslop said.

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