WASHINGTON -- As the USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) plowed through morning seas off the coast of Japan on May 7, a dozen senior Navy engineers and network specialists assembled in San Diego to watch the first live connectivity demonstration of a much-anticipated system for delivering on-demand, remote maintenance expertise to a deployed ship's point of need.
The successful at-sea test of the Distance Communications Maintenance System (DCoMS) marked a significant milestone for a concept that has been in development for several years, and one that offers unique opportunities for mitigating impacts to readiness challenges in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Every commanding officer in the fleet is focused on keeping their crews healthy, and right now that means doing everything we can to find alternatives to travelling to our ships while meeting mission requirements." said Rear Adm. James P. Downey, program executive officer (PEO) for Aircraft Carriers.
In the face of travel restrictions and quarantine periods, DCoMS offers Sailors real-time access to shore-based expertise using a lightweight, transportable kit comprised of two 25-pound backpacks holding a compact, stand-alone server; laptop and/or tablet; mountable cameras; and noise-cancelling headphones for use in otherwise high-noise-level situations.
DCoMS kits can be shipped anywhere in the world, enabling a ship's force to dial in for step-by-step help in making shipboard repairs, either pierside or under way.
"DCoMS is coming on line at just the right time, because the system offers the potential for linking Sailors with the maintenance expertise they'll need, real-time, in the midst of the pandemic," said Downey. "Reducing 'fly-away' teams where feasible equates to less risk in our calculus for protecting ship's force and, by extension, more opportunity to enhance resiliency and readiness."
"The pandemic has definitely shifted DCoMS testing to another gear," said Capt. Charles Ehnes, program manager, In-service Aircraft Carriers (PMS 312), who serves as the DCoMS program sponsor.
In mid-January, during a presentation at the 2020 Surface Navy Association symposium in Washington, D.C., Ehnes predicted that DCoMS would be a game-changer for the Navy, noting similarities in capability between distance maintenance and recent advances in telemedicine practices.
"At home, people don't think twice about going online to get advice from an expert, whether that's a doctor or a home improvement specialist," explained Ehnes. "DCoMS harnesses that simple concept of remote conferencing to deliver targeted solutions at the Sailor's point of need."
Capt. John Markowicz, assistant chief of staff for Ship Maintenance and Material Readiness at Commander, Naval Air Force, Pacific (COMNAVAIRPAC), has worked on the DCoMS project since its inception and was among the Navy leaders attending the shore-side demonstration, conducted at Naval Information Warfare Center (NIWC) Pacific in San Diego.
Markowicz shared the program's success with naval leaders representing entities that are interested in making DCoMS a reality, including Commander, Naval Information Warfare Systems Command (COMNAVWARSYSCOM); Southwest Regional Maintenance Center (SWRMC); NIWC Pacific-Information Technology Service Management (ITSM) Solutions; and In-Service Engineering Agent (ISEA) of the Future, Naval Surface Warfare Center, Port Hueneme Division (NSWC PHD).
"It's been incredibly rewarding to see such an innovative system emerge from the hard work of so many organizations over the past few years," said Markowicz. "DCoMS offers an opportunity to provide 'tele-maintenance,' allowing the shore-based team to help correct critical material issues with enhanced distance support while the aircraft carrier is at sea."
Markowicz explained that building secure connectivity along both hard-wire and satellite communication constructs has been the toughest leg of the effort. But Markowicz is confident that the opportunities for applying DCoMS problem-solving expertise in the fleet are numerous.
"Right now, the system is being tested aboard aircraft carriers, but certainly there is potential to field DCoMS on other platforms," he said.
Markowicz added, "Testing could not have happened without the support of multiple activities teaming together and certainly could not have happened underway without the Ronald Reagan team. Capt. Patrick Hannifin and his combat systems team helped advance this effort significantly. In the midst of all the competing demands required to successfully complete sea trials following Reagan's recent maintenance availability, his team helped successfully test DCoMS as well."
DCoMS early development
PEO Aircraft Carriers began research and development of the DCoMS kit, which is manufactured by Mechanical Solutions Inc. (MSI), Whippany, N.J., under the technical direction of NSWC PHD, in 2014. The government-industry team started testing the initial capability of DCoMS aboard the Navy's Self-Defense Test Ship in 2015.
The Office of Naval Research, through the Navy's Rapid Innovation Fund (RIF), awarded DCoMS a total of $2.9 million for testing, with the end-goal of fielding a deployed asset.
Earlier this year, the DCoMS team began troubleshooting connectivity challenges on board USS Nimitz (CVN 68), with the assistance of the ship's Automated Data Processing Office, within Combat Systems, acquiring significant lessons learned. In March, as the COVID-19 pandemic widened its grip, COMNAVAIRPAC requested the DCoMS project team test the kit aboard a ship positioned outside the contiguous United States. End-to-end connectivity testing began aboard Ronald Reagan in early May.
How the system works
The DCoMS kit includes a server that reaches a shore-side subject matter expert (SME), through the ship's Consolidated Afloat Networks and Enterprise Services (CANES) system, the Navy's tactical afloat network. During the test and trial period, the SME connects to the ship using video, audio and text feeds through a research, development, testing and evaluation (RTD&E)-networked computer via the Defense Research and Engineering (DREN) network. Initially, the SMEs are working from four shore test hubs through RTD&E nodes: NSWC PHD, NIWC in San Diego, NSWC Philadelphia Division, and NSWC Dahlgren Division's Dam Neck field detachment in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
The unique advantage of the DCoMS system for the Sailor is that the shore-side experts see what the Sailor sees. The SMEs can walk the shipboard technicians through a higher level of maintenance or troubleshooting steps than the technician would normally have the capability to perform.
DCoMS engagements also will have the capability to be recorded, with troubleshooting sessions stored in a digital library and retrievable as training tools from any ship or shore-based hub.
DCoMS has been approved for testing with some limitations, including a requirement to be operated in unclassified settings. The system also may not be used above the flight deck or in spaces containing any nuclear propulsion or medical equipment or personally identifiable information.
According to Markowicz, "We have proof of concept for DCoMS in hand. The next step is to complete the ship-side testing and to deploy the system for operational use in the coming months. I think DCoMS can mitigate some of the lingering restriction-of-movement impacts associated with COVID-19 by enhancing distance support."