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Portable Network Extends Field Communications

August 2006
By Rita Boland
E-mail About the Author

 
The Tactical Communications Kit
(TCK) developed by Cisco Systems Incorporated and CACI International Incorporated is a portable field communications kit that can establish wireless networks in remote and challenging environments. Personnel from the Naval Postgraduate School used it on a surveillance and targeting mission in Thailand.
Network in a box enables voice and data information-sharing in challenging environments.

Military and humanitarian relief personnel now can reach out from the field more easily with a product that combines voice and data communications capabilities in a single box. The approximately 65-pound kit is field portable, ruggedized and self-cooling. It uses open architecture standards and can be applied to hastily formed networks, military operations, disaster response and medical relief efforts.

The kit is essentially a network in a box that allows troops or other personnel in the field to set up the systems they need to share information. It provides voice, data and video capabilities in a single unit that can be connected to multiple backhaul solutions so that it can be deployed quickly in demanding environments. The communications run over Ethernet and use a variety of power sources. “It’s a wireless hot spot in a box,” says Bob Browning, senior manager, Tactical Operations Support, Cisco.

Cisco Systems Incorporated, Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, and CACI International Incorporated, Montgomery, Alabama, collaborated on the creation of the Tactical Communications Kit (TCK). Development of the TCK began three years ago. As Cisco worked on other network solutions at the beginning of the Iraq War, company staff began to identify potential systems needs. “We thought there might be some need for a mobile kit,” Browning notes. CACI began collaborating with Cisco at the time of the tsunami disaster in South Asia in August 2005.

Using commercial off-the-shelf products, Cisco created the network portion of the TCK. Developers integrated voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) solutions with wireless and satellite connectivity, including routing, switching, security, Internet protocol (IP) telephone and fax/secure telephone capability. The TCK works with commercial satellite platforms.

The baseline kit includes two 7960 wired IP telephones and four 7920 wireless telephones. The base configuration of the 2811 integrated services router in the kit includes a 2811 with virtual private network (VPN) acceleration module, a 16-port EtherSwitch with power over Ethernet to run the telephones, two land mobile radio interface ports and an integrated high-speed wireless area network (WAN) interface card, or HWIC, Access-Point (802.11 b/g). The kit can accept more than 100 additional cards for various functions.

To encase the network, CACI chose a case made by ECS Composites, Grants Pass, Oregon, and customized it for the kit’s eventual deployment purposes. “The kit was designed, fabricated, powder-coated and assembled in our LexingtonPark [Maryland] facility,” says Ira Hostetter, program manager for CACI. “Custom foam panes were cut for the top lid to house the Cisco IP phones and cables needed for operation. Dual fans were used that would ensure adequate ventilation across the router for operation while the lid is closed.”

CACI designers shock-mounted the router on a hinged panel to provide protection and to strengthen the overall design. They also left space under the lid where other devices such as a KIV-7 or an iDirect modem can be mounted.

A goal of the project was to create a kit that could be transported easily yet be able to satisfy a full range of communications needs. In addition to the different voice and data options, the TCK also can operate over a variety of distances depending on the antennas. “It’s a very versatile little kit,” Browning states.

With a small antenna, communications can reach from approximately 300 to 400 feet. “However, if we hook up another antenna and put it on a pole, we’ve demonstrated being able to go several miles with a direct shot,” he explains.

Researchers have put the product in the back of a sport utility vehicle and driven it several miles from its point of origin. From there, they created a 5.8-gigahertz wireless link back to another vehicle. They could control equipment in the second vehicle and use that vehicle’s satellite.

Depending on the antenna in use, the TCK has on-the-move communications capabilities, but this feature is more about the antennas than the actual kit. “Frankly, I don’t think our gear knows whether it’s moving or not,” Browning notes.

Even with all of its capabilities, the TCK is easy to assemble and use. “It’s made to be set up ahead of time for nontechnical folks to use it,” Browning explains.

The benefits of the kit—from range to configuration variety—lead to one of the main thrusts behind its development: to create a tool that facilitates communications networks in harsh environments. “This is a way to go in and rapidly establish communications in an area where infrastructure has been damaged, distressed or was nonexistent,” Browning says.

The first test of the TCK came during the tsunami disaster in Southeast Asia. It also was used during the response to Hurricane Katrina. When Katrina hit, requests came in for up to 50 kits but not enough were available at that time. Browning estimates that 12 TCKs currently are in the field.

In addition to these relief missions, students and professors at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS), Monterey, California, are using the kit for several military-related missions. Cisco has loaned the NPS two TCKs. A group returned recently from Thailand where it worked with the Thai military on surveillance and targeting to enhance border protection for the Coalition Operating Area Surveillance and Targeting System (COASTS) project. The project is two years old, and in 2007 it may be expanded to include other countries and a maritime domain awareness scenario.

Another group at NPS is using the TCK as part of its efforts to bring medical care to remote areas in Asia. In addition, NPS researchers working with hastily formed networks also have applications for the product.

Professor Brian Steckler, associate chair for special programs, NPS, says the TCK had most of the tools the Thailand teams needed in one box, including 802.11 communications, VoIP, land mobile radio, enough ports to plug in other devices and fans to keep the equipment cool. This last feature is especially important in areas with high temperatures and extreme humidity such as the Thai jungles.

 
The TCK can operate on the move depending on the antenna used with the kit. The antenna also affects the distance the communications network can cover. With a small antenna, the TCK’s range is approximately 300 to 400 feet, but with another antenna placed on a pole, the technology has been able to extend for several miles in line of sight.
The product also allows users to communicate across wider areas. According to Lt. Jonathan Powers, USN, student network lead, COASTS, the team used the TCK to reach back into the Royal Thai Air Force network through a long haul 802.16 connection. The 802.16 link covered approximately 12 square miles. “I think I’ve only scratched the surface of what this thing can do,” Lt. Powers offers.

The TCK was 100 percent reliable in the field, reduced the equipment the troops needed to carry and provided a stand-alone unit for a remote network, Lt. Powers states. “To have that sort of capability in a case-size box really helped us out,” he says.

The NPS crews also value the voice capabilities of the TCK on humanitarian and tactical missions because of the environments in which these operations take place. “One of the key [factors] is in a disaster or remote scenario like that, you want to have voice communications,” Steckler explains.

The NPS staff added 802.16 capabilities to the TCK to fit its mission needs. The TCK is a component of the NPS fly-away kits, which are small, portable communications suites that can be checked as luggage on an airplane.

The portability and small footprint of the TCK were boons to the field teams according to Lt. Robert Hochstedler, USN, student lead on the COASTS project. Those features are qualities he and his team are looking to have in the field, he adds. One of the goals of the COASTS project is to extend U.S. borders to handle problems as close to the source as possible. “When it comes to detecting threats nowadays, if you found out the nuclear weapon is in San Diego harbor, it’s too late,” Lt. Hochstedler says. “We’re pushing our borders as far out as we can by empowering our allies.”

One way the TCK can help empower and protect those allies is through the kit’s cooling fans. Lt. Hochstedler explains that heat and humidity often make the wireless network cameras used in border surveillance in the Thai jungles fail. The insurgents know this and have snipers shoot technicians when they attempt to repair the equipment.

The Thailand team operated the TCK on 20 volts, 50 hertz power. To ensure the security of the wireless messages sent over the network the team used encryption tools from another vendor. The product comes with built-in security as well, including commercial encryption in the router. Browning notes that users can bulk encrypt the entire data and voice stream before it comes out of the satellite.

For the NPS team using the TCK on a hospital ship during its medical aid mission, security is a lesser concern because team members want easy access to the communications network. The NPS’ humanitarian and more tactical missions also differ in another way: power source. NPS personnel will use solar power on the hospital ship to generate electricity for the TCK.

“In Southeast Asia, on the hospital ship, we have a new high-tech solar tent,” Steckler says. The NPS team on the medical mission also took the network technologies in the kit and put them in two lighter boxes—one for shore use and the other to remain on the ship—and added 802.16 capability to both. They also added another router so that they would have one on each end. The configuration allows personnel to connect wireless ship-to-shore, point-to-point, or to multiple stations on shore links.

Steckler says recommendations for future versions of the product include creating a lighter box for the kit and integrating radio interoperability into the package. “Right now they have land mobile radio in it, and that’s half the battle for voice interoperability,” he explains. To achieve full radio interoperability, the Cisco IP Interoperability and Collaboration System can be used with the TCK. Steckler says the NPS also is testing it with other technologies to achieve the desired capability.

Cisco is working on new configurations for the TCK and has plans for similar technology beyond this product. Christopher Boyd, a homeland security consulting engineer at Cisco, explains that part of the thrust behind the TCK is to go beyond the actual kit to more communications tools with more open architecture. “If you can’t communicate, you can’t coordinate,” he says.

Open architecture and flexibility are going to be the keys to the future communications technologies Boyd envisions. He says events like the response to Hurricane Katrina emphasize the need for options. Generators filled with seawater during Katrina and cellular and land mobile radio communications were not totally reliable. “We have to be prepared with any amount of flexibility,” he says. Boyd adds that the TCK is an adoption and packaging of flexible, nonproprietary architecture in a specific package.

 

Web Resources
Cisco Systems Incorporated: www.cisco.com
CACI International Incorporated: www.caci.com
NavalPostgraduateSchool: www.nps.edu
Royal Thai Air Force: www.rtaf.mi.th/eng