7 mins read 08 Apr 2022

Fortifyedge’s technology to identify users in space

Tasmanian-based startup, Fortifyedge is using its edge computing software to provide secure access in the remotest of locations. The company is now exploring how machine learning can meet space mission needs such as astronaut identification, status and safety.

Imagine trying to identify yourself in space with a fingerprint scanner, facial recognition or by typing in a pin code. The hostile environment of space and a lack of access to data can make it very difficult. Fortifyedge is providing a solution to this problem with its edge computing software. Credit: NASA.

Have you ever considered the need to be able to identify who is who in space? Up until recently, it hasn’t been too big a problem with limited accessibility by only a handful of humans that have travelled to space, but as the space domain grows and humanity’s reach expands, space security will become an important issue. This is the story of a startup based in Tasmania that is developing edge computing software that can not only be used to monitor the health of Tasmanian Devils but also ensure that the correct astronaut is accessing data in a future Moon or Mars colony.   

The start-up, Fortifyedge, has attracted interest from a range of multinationals, such as Thales, Microsoft, and NASA. Fortifyedge’s decentralised identity management platform, which is built on Microsoft Azure Stack Edge Mini R, is designed to use machine learning at the edge in order to identify the user of any device or vehicle, autonomous or not. If the platform finds something amiss, built-in software can automatically shut down access to systems even when disconnected from the cloud.

Company CEO and Co-Founder Peter Padd explained that Fortifyedge is providing a solution to address the need for edge computing in certain scenarios where the cloud may not be always available.

The decentralised identity management platform allows for user identification in regions where access to the cloud is difficult due to the operational environment, whether that is in remote areas of Tasmania, on a complex battlefield, or in the harsh environment of space.  

Collaboration With Industry and Partners

Testing of edge computing is being done in the harsh environment of space onboard the International Space Station. Edge computing can speed up processing times, meaning information no longer needs to be sent back to Earth for analysing and then sent back into space. Credit: NASA.

In 2021, Fortifyedge entered into a collaboration with global defence company Thales and Microsoft to develop Nexium Defence Cloud Edge to provide a secure operations theatre in a disconnected environment.   

One of the biggest challenges in any domain where the operating environment is complex has been the ability to correctly identify who is who, particularly when connectivity is sketchy or not available. 

By inserting a tiny machine learning capability in a smartwatch, Fortifyedge was able to tackle the problem, and the machine learning algorithm could be used with other body-worn technology such as Microsoft’s HoloLens2 to identify the wearer, check their status and what they were doing, as well as determining if it was safe to continue. The company sees endless uses for its technology which can use biometric information to identify the user of any device and allow or deny access where required. 

With more technology becoming remotely operated, understanding who is operating that technology will become more critical, particularly in non-terrestrial environments where access to large data sets may be delayed or not available. Edge computing technology with machine learning is able to solve this problem, providing rapid informed decision-making capabilities.   

With data flows being the bottleneck of many data-hungry systems, edge computing can reduce the amount of data that is flowing by doing the processing in situ and sending back just the relevant information for decision making. And with cyber-attacks becoming more prevalent, being able to understand who is doing what and when will become more urgent. 

“With the cyber attackers getting more sophisticated, we have to be more sophisticated about how we let you authenticate, but we also need to be able to quickly detect the actors using your identity,” said Padd.

During discussions with the US Space Force, Padd was also advised by the overseas military branch that the space domain continues to become a contested environment and that security was one of the highest priorities for it. This is especially the case for astronauts and scientists working on assets that could be worth billions of dollars, connected to the ISS.

“You want to make sure that any sort of autonomous things that you’re using are still in the control of authorised users,” he said.

Fortifyedge have also taken part in the first Tasmanian Space Technology Seed Fund which aims to grow Tasmania’s space sector, drive innovation, strengthen industry collaboration, increase investment, and create new skilled jobs for Tasmanians.

A Multitude of Technology Applications

Bushfire zones are not only hostile environments for humans but the smoke can have a significant impact on network availability. Having edge computing in the field can support access to remote technology such as drones or robotic vehicles. Credit: NASA.

With more information moving to the cloud, these centralised data centres are great when you have stable and secure access to the network, however, problems arise when you have intermittent, slow, or non-existent connections. Edge computing brings the cloud to the user, enabling the data required to be available when it is needed.   

“Say a firefighter is fighting bushfires and they're in a remote area. They want to use every piece of smart technology as well so they can fight bushfires better. What they don't want to do is have to deal with, in those really stressful situations, are passwords or pin codes or Smart cards. Or taking their mask or gloves off to use their finger or their face which could make their emergencies worse,” said Padd.

A situation that is directly comparable to our future in space, where environmental conditions will make identification difficult. 

“Let’s take an adjacent leap to space. Let's say a soldier that's in the snow they're going to be wearing a mask and goggles and gloves. But they don't want to take any of that off when they're on their mission. Or in health, now that you're wearing a face mask or plastic mask and you’ve been through a COVID test, how do they authenticate (who they are)? What's an astronaut wearing? It’s big giant PPE on steroids, and in the hostile environment of space they don’t want to take any of that off,” added Padd. 

Saving the Tasmanian Devil

The Tasmanian Devil has been facing the severe threat of Devil Facial Tumour Disease, Fortifyedge have been working with the University of Tasmania to provide health information on the devil population. Credit: UTAS.

The same technology that has the potential to identify astronauts in space or firefighters in the middle of dealing with a bushfire, is being developed to monitor wild Tasmanian Devil populations.  

Devil facial tumour disease (DFTD) was first described in 1996 and has become the biggest threat to the survival of this unique animal that, although once were found all over Australia, are now confined to the apple isle. The population has suffered rapid declines and is now currently listed as at high risk of extinction in the wild. 

DFTD is passed on through Devil to Devil contact and once tumours are visible the devils usually die within a few months. Declines of up to 80% have been noted in infected populations with nearly all sexually mature devils becoming infected and succumbing to the disease. 

There are plans to trial a vaccine and this is where Fortifyedge comes in. The edge computing software, can track each animal and understand its biomarkers so that researchers can not only know what each devil is up to but also how that devil is doing. 

“What happens after the Tassie Devils take the vaccine? We want to cure their facial cancer, but we still want them to breed. So we need more than just putting trackers on animals. We actually need to know any adverse effects due to that vaccine and do they have to try a different one?” said Padd.

One of the challenges that face all these applications is the availability of the network and managing large amounts of data. 

“Tasmania is great because it's a very remote rugged area and to be able to do this we need to put the intelligence on the device and when they are occasionally in range of some sort of network. We don't need to shift all the data back; we just get the results,” added Padd. 

“Tasmanian devil researchers want to know the identity of the devil that is running around, and what's their status? What are they doing? Are they full of energy, full of beans? Are they sleeping too much? Do they seem lethargic or are they dehydrated? So how is that any different to an astronaut?” concluded Padd.