The result is Battlefield Connect, a demonstration system based on technologies developed for femtocell base stations. About the size of a domestic broadband router, these devices use Wi-Fi to deliver very localized cellphone network connectivity. “That has allowed the miniaturization of a lot of the technology you'd find on a typical [cellular] base station with a mast,” says Moore. “But [femtocell] ranges are typically measured in tens of meters, [as opposed to] the 10- or 20-km performance you get from the big base station.”
The hand-portable base station has provided a 3G network with a 40-km (25- mi.) range, and has been capable of maintaining network provision even when the unit is moving in a vehicle at speeds of up to 120 kph (75 mph). In theory, it could be installed on a fleet of ground vehicles, and onboard UAVs, providing network availability and communications between a series of moving platforms.
The Battlefield Connect system is intended to prove the viability of Roke's proposed technical and operational proposals. It was developed with internal company funding, but Roke has been using it as part of a number of U.K. defense ministry research programs, “to help answer questions and explore problems,” Moore says. “They have acknowledged the benefits but want to have questions answered about some of the potential pitfalls, and make sure we're developing technical solutions to overcome those.”
Another technology from the commercial world with promise of military utility is the concept of self-organizing networks. “On the battlefield everything is much more chaotic and unpredictable,” Moore says. “What a self-organizing network is able to do is to adjust power and frequency use without significant user intervention, based on what other base stations around them are doing. The network could change itself if a base station moved, or even if a base station got taken out it would be able to rebalance the other nodes in the network to ensure coverage.
“I think—and this is my personal view —that at the moment, a lot of defense departments around the world are still trying to understand the requirements and exactly how they want to use the technology.”
The barriers to fielding successful solutions may end up having more to do with politics and institutional cultures than technology.
“Is the procurement culture really set up to be able to move with the technology?” Moore ponders. “If you can't move with the technology you end up being stuck in an obsolescence issue, where you're trying to support a version of the standard that really isn't the cutting edge any more. I think this is the fundamental problem: It's just such a different way of thinking about things that, understandably, there's a degree of trepidation before people commit to the technology.”
So, rather than focusing solely on the technology and leaving the user base to fall in line, the company is examining this challenge, too.
“One of the things that Roke is exploring is, are there solutions we can provide as an applique to commercial networks?” Moore says. “In effect, to say, 'Well, you buy the core commercial technology, you add something on top, and that provides you with some of the protection against some of the concerns you have. But when you look at commercial and military technology you're trying to bring two different procurement cultures and business models together.”
Israeli companies are offering militarized commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) solutions that could complement or (for export) partly substitute the IDF's sophisticated Digital Army Program (DAP, also known as Zayad). Developed by prime contractor Elbit Systems, Zayad has improved operational flexibility, coordination and combat efficiency at all combat levels, while reducing the scourge of friendly fire.