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Innovators Imagine Communications Far Down the Road

May 15, 2008
by Rita Boland
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The minds of the world creating the future’s communications technology already know what to expect in the next generation—tools that are smaller, more powerful and more flexible yet less expensive. These experimenters also know that current bandwidth problems have to be a focus area for future operations.

Scientists and engineers are working on a range of projects to meet the needs of troops. At LGS Innovations, researchers are preparing technologies that could roll out in 10 years and others that are 20 or more years away. One major focus area is the need to work around limited bandwidth problems. In the Bell Labs Layered Space-Time (BLAST) project, LGS engineers are increasing the amount of data transmitted over the spectrum. Already they have demonstrated speeds of 50 bits per second per hertz. “That’s pretty extraordinary because spectrum is pretty precious,” says Dave Bishop, chief technology officer and chief operating officer at LGS. Spectrum also is expensive.

BLAST employs multiple transmitting and multiple receiving with specific algorithms to code and decode messages to make multipath communications advantageous. Bishop believes this will have a major impact on military communications.

Antennas are another area of next-generation communications technology under development at LGS. The organization is working with nanotechnologies and metamaterials to create electronically large but physically small antennas. The experimental materials enable the shrinkage of large antennas required with specific radio frequencies.

LGS personnel also are examining pixelated antennas. Instead of having to change antennas to receive different frequencies, the researchers are developing pixels that can pick up the different wavelengths. The result is similar to a programmable antenna that can be set for various frequencies. This development is especially relevant to transportation platforms such as aircraft and tanks that currently require multiple receivers and transmitters to carry out their missions.

Pixelated antennas also benefit platforms with no flat surfaces such as stealth aircraft. The pixelated device can operate on a curved surface by using software to adjust the phase of the pixels. With current technologies, bending the metal prevents an antenna from working.

Another way LGS plans to advance antenna technology is through reduced detectability. That advancement will prevent the enemy from locating a convoy, picking out the vehicle with the antenna and attacking it first. One method of protection is a plastic armor that is radio frequency transparent but camouflages the identity of the command vehicle.

The U.S. Defense Department also is examining a next-generation technology that will offer increased service speed and answers to bandwidth problems. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has an effort known as the Dynamic Multi-Terabit Core Optical Networks: Architectures, Protocols, Control and Management (CORONET) program that will create a network scalable to a much higher level than current throughput, but not at a proportionate increase in cost, size or power consumption. The increase in throughput will enable a speed of 100 terabits per second on a large, global-scale network. 

CORONET would enable applications not feasible today for technical and particularly economic reasons. “Without dynamic networking, which is not available with today's networks, the cost of many of these services would be prohibitive,” Dr. Adel Saleh, CORONET program manager, says.

Dynamic networks also speed recovery time for damage in a network because they reconfigure to work around any errors. Most networks today are at least quasi-static, so DARPA researchers are studying how to change the configurations of the networks. Because civilian and military networks today already work well, DARPA does not need to create an entirely new network. “The idea here is I want to scale the network up with 10 times throughput without spending 10 times the money,” Saleh explains.

CORONET also offers increased security and robustness to networks. Security is critical for military and commercial users, but robustness is especially important for the military because of the ever-growing importance of network centricity.  

Another next-generation technology project underway at DARPA also deals with increased security and dynamic solutions. The Dynamic Quarantine of Computer-Based Worm Attacks (DQW) program will combat malicious code attacks. While the technical details are classified, Lt. Col. Michael VanPutte, USA, DQW program manager, describes the operation as a four-step process. The first step is to identify worm behavior. The second is to isolate the affected machine. The third step is to go back in time and “heal” the afflicted devices, and the fourth step is to build an immunization signature and push that off to the entire network.

The full version of this article is published in the June 2008 issue of SIGNAL Magazine, in the mail to AFCEA members and subscribers June 1, 2008. For information about purchasing this issue, joining AFCEA or subscribing to SIGNAL, contact AFCEA Member Services.