The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) – the Pentagon’s experimental research and development arm that thinks up new ideas and then pushes them as far out on a limb as they can – is trying to come up with a new, relatively inexpensive networked radio system that can keep soldiers in austere environments connected. And according to one engineer working on the project, they’re pretty close to wrapping it up.
Called the Wireless Network after Next (WNaN), the idea is to take inexpensive, upgradable commercial off-the-shelf radio components, harden them for military use, and issue each soldier his own radio.
DARPA has tapped Raytheon’s BBN Technologies to work on the network and Cobham to work on the radios. Jeff Feinberg of Raytheon’s BBN Technologies explains that the goal of the program is to produce radios that cost about $500 each, and can be easily swapped out every few years as technologies improve. He compared it to how civilians treat their cell phones. “Your phone is just an access device,” he explains, “all the smarts are in the network itself, and they get you to throw your phone away every two years and get a new phone that can get more use out of the network. That’s really where this program is trying to head—to make that radio an access device and drive all the high level performance to the network so the Army doesn’t have to reinvent and reinvest in a lot of new hardware every year.” Essentially, the Army will buy the network once, while tossing the inexpensive radios out every few years for better models that can exploit more of the network.
Raytheon conducted a demonstration of WNaN at Ft. Benning, Ga. in June using a 52 node network, in which they had a rifle company disconnect from the network and drop a lot of situational awareness data on the net, then reconnect. “We did not see any disruption on the network throughput,” Feinberg says. Tests have had the radios transmit voice messages, streaming video, and still pictures, and while most of the testing at Ft. Benning has already been completed, the team is now at work adding type two security to the radio which is expected to be done in the February-March timeframe.
The team has also added dynamic spectrum access, where “what you’re doing is looking at the available spectrum and letting the radio by policy pick the best one to use in the usable spectrum, and it’s constantly checking the environment and adjusting to make sure you’re getting the best [throughput],” Feinberg says. Funded by $41 million from DARPA so far, Feinberg says that the testing has largely been completed, and that while there is still work to be done on hardening the radios, “there’s no hard technical problems [left] to solve, in my opinion.”
US Army photo