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Preparing the Pieces of Upcoming Defense Communications

August 2011
By Rita Boland, SIGNAL Magazine
E-mail About the Author

 

John Coleman, the chief executive officer of xG Technology, hands an xMax handset to 1st Lt. Carlos Guerra, USA, of 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division, 1st Battalion, 35th Armored Regiment, Delta Company. XMax is a cognitive radio network that finds open areas of spectrum and passes information through them to increase successful data transfers. The brigade tested the technology before and during the Network Integration Evaluation.

New ways to pass information will alter the U.S. land force if promises stand up to evaluation.

The future of U.S. Army networks is evolving at Fort Bliss, Texas, through the development, testing and exercising of technologies that range from apps to cognitive networks. Though the initiatives are separate efforts, combined field events and close physical proximity are creating synergy between developers. As the work moves forward, successful outcomes will change how soldiers communicate at home and in the field.

One of the projects aims to put a smartphone into the hand of each member of the Army. The Connecting Soldiers to Digital Applications (CSDA) program is examining the feasibility of such a feat and how it can be accomplished. Mike McCarthy, director of operations at the Future Force Integration Directorate, explains that the effort is more complicated than it sounds. “If you’ve got a big enough checkbook, anyone can go out and buy 1.2 million cell phones,” he says. Finding an effective and cost-efficient method for completing the same task is more difficult.

Program personnel have been exploring options for approximately a year and a half. None have a signal background because the leadership who assigned the tasking wanted people without preconceived notions of solutions. The approach is in line with the end goal of a new methodology for information sharing. “[CSDA] will fundamentally change how soldiers access training content, knowledge, information and situational awareness in garrison and in the operational environment,” McCarthy says.

Developers decided to take a systematic approach to the tasking. In addition to determining the best platforms, which can include ones such as Kindle and iPad, and how to acquire them at a reasonable price, the Army has to determine how to support them. “How do you sustain smartphones when troops are out away from post for a long time?” McCarthy asks.

Already the team has examined solar power, but the option has several drawbacks, including the time necessary to charge batteries using sun or manmade light and the issue of periods of darkness. A more promising power source is a microfuel cell that runs on methanol. One ounce of the liquid can power five smartphones for up to a week. It can charge larger platforms, such as iPads, for less time or in lesser numbers, and McCarthy estimates that a gallon of methanol costs about $1.25, an attractive price point. One company has provided a methanol solution that comes in packaging about the size of a wallet.

Soldiers at Fort Bliss have been testing several aspects of the CSDA, including during the Army’s Network Integration Evaluation (NIE)—a large field exercise that ran for six weeks in June and July at Fort Bliss and White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. The NIE included testing in the mountains to judge how technologies will operate in terrain similar to that of Afghanistan. “Our focus is really on taking the phones to war,” McCarthy explains.

He continues that the Army is not looking into phones hardened for difficult conditions. “It doesn’t make sense to spend thousands to ruggedize $250 phones,” McCarthy says. Before moving the CSDA platforms into the field, only one phone broke during evaluations, and none were lost. McCarthy believes that soldiers recognize the devices’ value and protect them.

The CSDA is working with and looking at different app programs around the Army focused on development such as the Apps for the Army contests. The first contest held last year was open to Army personnel who wanted to develop their own applications and submit them. Another round of competition is scheduled to begin in 2012, with public and industry developers eligible to participate.

Though the platforms and the apps that run on them ultimately are intended for battlefield use, earlier studies focused on military office and classroom needs. McCarthy says students who use smartphone technologies as part of their curriculum tend to have 10 to 15 percent higher grade point averages than those without the devices.

In an experiment with the Army’s course for Patriot Missile system maintainers, the first students who tried the app designed for that class earned an approximately 14 percent higher grade point average and graduated from the self-paced training two weeks earlier. Responding to doubts suggesting the case was an anomaly, the experiment was repeated with another class and achieved the same results. McCarthy explains that students were using the app outside of class to compete with each other for fun.

He also says that young troops expect technology with a high level of detail and accuracy. Students, not instructors, were the first to notice a mistake in the app when a piece of equipment was in the wrong position. Another use for apps includes loading manuals onto smartphones so students can take them home and schools can save on printing costs.

Through all the work on the CSDA, developers are trying to stay agnostic as to platform and operating system. “It’s about buying the right phone for the right price for the right reason,” McCarthy explains. At the end of evaluations, officials hope to transfer the CSDA to a program of record. Until then, he says he and his teammates are open to any technology companies want to send that might fit in with their goals, touting small companies and their willingness to respond and adapt according to Army needs.

One such small business is focusing on a better way to pass the information available through apps and other resources. Since mid-April, the Army has been evaluating a cognitive radio system called xMax that would enable better communications on the move by setting up mobile ad hoc networks (MANETs) that more effectively use spectrum with voice, data and text sent via Internet protocol (IP).

A company called xG is presenting the technology to the Army because the chief executive officer, John Coleman, is a retired U.S. Marine Corps colonel who decided when he left active duty that he “was going to find a cellular answer for the military.” XG’s approach is optimized for the mobile environment, which has limited bandwidth compared to wired networks. Using proprietary techniques, the xMax system minimizes over-the-air bandwidth while optimizing voice quality. The time division duplex frame structure minimizes latency.

The network also offers other unique features. For one, it operates in the license-free 900-megahertz industrial, scientific and medical (ISM) radio band. This area of spectrum is used for common radio controls such as Global Positioning System devices, garage door openers and baby monitors. Currently, the handsets have smart technology that searches the band for open pockets and sends information through that space. The handsets catalogue six open channels at a time, seamlessly switching among them as necessary to continue transmissions.

Coleman explains that the concept resembles the one that allowed propeller-powered fighter planes to shoot guns through the front of the aircraft instead of from the top. Engineers timed the gun to fire bullets through the empty space between the blades. In the same way, xG’s system shoots information packets through the blades of interference on the spectrum. Hopping among available spectrum maintains transmissions in spite of interference on particular frequencies. In tactical scenarios, a dropped call can be the difference between life and death.

Because xMax does not rely on commercial carriers, network generations and what they supposedly support are not important to developers. “The Army is going to work on 3G and 4G; we’re going to give them xG,” Coleman states.

Eventually, the technology in the communications devices will move into the network itself, allowing the system to become handset agnostic. Future developments also include a 3.0 xMax product release in the first quarter of 2012 that will have the capability to use the 5-gigahertz ISM band as well. This extra spectrum will enable more throughput and give the network extra robustness by enabling it to access additional frequencies in case of interference.

Because the technology itself is spectrum agnostic, the Army has asked xG to examine adding the 300- to 400-megahertz range of spectrum designated for military use. The company is working with soldiers to determine the timing and types of applications necessary to support that band. The varied bands also enable the technology to work worldwide regardless of standards in other countries.

In its current evolution, the xMax network uses traditional cellular base stations and tall antenna towers, but xG is developing a next-generation system that shrinks the current 250-pound base station to a small access point (AP) that weighs less than 30 pounds. The lighter version will fit into Strykers, Humvees and aerial platforms. Vehicles equipped with these lightweight xMax nodes will offer network connectivity in areas with little or no fixed communications infrastructure. By eliminating the need for cell towers, the system will reduce, and in some cases eliminate, tower infrastructure vulnerable to attack.

Large-scale xMax networks can support up to 100,000 registered users making more than 10,000 simultaneous calls. It also can be scaled down to support smaller groups for highly mobile expeditionary applications.

Coleman, who led Marines in Iraq during the first days of operation Iraqi Freedom, says troops need 100 percent system capacity to be delivered minutes after they enter a country. The xMax system is being designed to support advanced self-organizing network capabilities so that when the system turns on, it immediately conducts its own channel plan and configuration with no manual intervention. Technologies that require manual configuration to establish connectivity hinder missions, Coleman adds.

The xMax APs create what he calls communications bubbles covering several miles. They also employ a small battery-powered device that allows any Wi-Fi-enabled commercial device to connect to and use the xMax network. According to Coleman, this capability to support any number and type of mobile commercial end-user devices enables the Army to build and maintain interoperability on the fly now and well into the future as smart devices evolve and become more capable.

In addition to its offensive uses, xMax’s channel-changing capability makes it harder for enemies to jam communications. When the system detects such an interference, it moves to the next area of free spectrum. And as the choices of spectrum channels available to the technology increase, jamming becomes more difficult. The switching also makes it harder for jammers to judge success. They may know they stopped a transmission at a certain frequency without realizing the same information now is being shared on another. Because the technology creates MANETs and runs over IP, the destruction or jamming of nearby networks also fails to stop transmissions.

Such service and availability can help push command, control and communications capabilities to the tactical edge—a feat the U.S. military is eager to make a reality. With such tools, commanders can reach down and share information with units that are hard to reach now. “It’s not to micromanage the fight ... it’s to enable success,” Coleman says.

Approximately 50 soldiers from the 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division, 1st Battalion, 35th Armored Regiment, Delta Company, employed the xMax handsets leading up to and during the NIE; they have been pleased with the results of early evaluations. Before the exercise, their assignment regarding xMax was to use the handsets as they would any cellphone to make at least four calls a day. Soldiers said they noticed almost no difference between the xMax communications and those on more expensive networks in different parts of the spectrum. 1st Lt. Carlos Guerra, USA, says he even used the handset to call overseas. Pfc. Glenn Guiett, USA, has used the phone to call from Fort Bliss to California. He said he enjoyed good call quality, though the person on the other end commented about clarity issues.

Those two soldiers and others in their unit played the opposition forces in the NIE, working to disrupt the missions of the “good guys” in the game. They received xMax early so they could become familiar with it before the exercise. The capabilities offered by the system represent those common among insurgents. Pfc. Guiett says such testing opportunities are important to providing the right capabilities to warfighters. “If it works here, it’s more than likely going to work there,” he states.

XMax is intended to supplement, not replace, military radios. The soldiers say the text option would allow them to stay covert by passing messages that way instead of speaking. Troops also could send information to many people at once, instead of one at a time.

The technology offers deployed soldiers a benefit not available through radios—a way to contact home. Troops in forward locations can go two to three months at a time without being able to call stateside, and when they do have an opportunity to reach their loved ones, they might only have about 15 minutes to talk. For those warfighters who have access to calling centers, the low-end calling cards still could cost them $100 per month. With the xMax networks, these soldiers would have more opportunities to check in with loved ones at home as well as another way to reach out to other units in the field.

WEB RESOURCES
Network Integration Evaluation: www.bctmod.army.mil/nie_focus/index.html
xG Technology: www.xgtechnology.com
White Sands Missile Range: www.wsmr.army.mil