Thursday, December 9, 2010

DARPA kicks off battlefield networks project

By Bob Brewin

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has launched a $20 million project to leverage commercial technologies for development of Advanced Wireless Networks for the Soldier, which will serve as both a battlefield network and a data-rich soldier information system.

DARPA plans to build the network around handheld radios developed by the BBN Technologies division of Raytheon under an earlier research program, the $10 million Wireless Network After Next Project, started in 2007.

Among other things, the BBN radios include software that helps soldiers automatically locate data and information on a network. In the AWNS project, DARPA wants to use that capability as the basis for a soldier information system in which the radios would work as computers linked in a wireless environment.

Bernie Skoch, a communications consultant and retired Air Force general with extensive experience in communications, said the idea makes sense because "the distinction between radios and computers no longer exists." Today's software-based radios -- such as those under development for the military's Joint Tactical Radio System -- also are computers, Skoch said.

DARPA, in a broad agency announcement for the AWNS program, said it is seeking proposals from industry on how to tap into the networked computer resources of nine Wirelesses Network after Next radios.

The agency also wants industry's help in adapting the multiple antenna technology used in the latest standard of consumer Wi-Fi, 802.11n, to advanced radios. This multiple-input and multiple-output technology helps capture weak signals, and Skoch said it is well suited for use in urban environments where traditional antennas cannot always receive signals.

The MIMO antenna DARPA wants to use in its next generation radios and networks will differ significantly from traditional vertical metal antennas. The agency said it needs help in developing antennas that would be distributed around the uniform of the soldier. Skoch said they might be built into patches that could be attached, for example, to a shoulder pad.

While traditional military radios work on selected frequencies, DARPA said it wants to develop a software-based "strategic reasoner" that will help the radios select the best frequency for a given location.

Mike McCarthy, director of the mission command complex of the Army Future Force Integration Directorate at Fort Bliss, Texas, said the AWNS project fits with the Army's work to adapt smart phone technology for battlefield use.

McCarthy said that later this year he plans to test tactical cellular gear from Sirran Communications at White Sands Missile Range, N.M. He also plans to test cellular systems from XG Technology Inc. that can seek out and operate on unused frequencies.

McCarthy said he is working closely with DARPA on the AWNS project and noted that development of advanced battlefield systems has the strong backing of Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army's vice chief of staff.

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