There is no doubt that wireless communications have changed many industries beyond all recognition. However, perhaps some of the most telling advances have come in areas where the use of such technologies is doing more than just reducing costs and improving efficiencies, helping to save lives and offering protection to users. Areas like defence.
Here in the battlefield arena, wireless technology is being used in a variety of formats to gain advantage, provide secure communications and ultimately remove troops from harm’s way where possible. It’s particularly appropriate for this kind of scenario given the versatility and reduced costs it brings, and we are increasingly seeing it deployed in many forms, from satellites and IP networks to unmanned drones and robots.
Take satellite usage. In the last 10 years its use has increased dramatically due to technological advances and the resulting reduction in terminal size and costs. As a result, small, ruggedised terminals operating at Ku band have become prevalent, as have mobile satellite technologies such as those used in Blue Force Tracking.
As Rick Lober, VP and general manager of the defence and intelligence systems division at Hughes, explains: ‘The proliferation of airborne ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) data has also resulted in numerous platforms that utilise both Mobilsat-based (Swift 64 or broadband) and Ku-based COTM (communications on the move) systems.
‘Ground-based comms-on-the-pause systems have become common, while ground-based comms-on-the-move systems have been slow to deploy for regulatory, size and cost reasons,’ he adds.
For its part, Hughes has been actively promoting the use of highly efficient TDMA-based systems to replace older SCPC products around the world.
Lober feels that the size and cost of vehicular comms on the move systems has slowed deployment, so Hughes has been working on advanced modems to significantly reduce the size and cost of antennas in these applications.
‘Network management has also been an issue and will become increasingly important as larger Satcom systems are deployed,’ he adds. ‘Hughes has invested heavily in network management software that is not only easily used but can significantly cut the cost of bandwidth for given quality of service levels.’
Although multiple network technologies are in use today, almost all of these are proprietary, so on both its VSAT (very small aperture terminal) and Mobilsat network developments, Hughes has promoted the use of open standards, working with various bodies to approve and publish its air interface standards.
‘VSAT is starting to replace L band Mobilsat due to the need for increased data rates and reduced airtime costs. However, the convenience of Mobilsat in terms of terminal size and network provisioning remains an advantage,’ says Lober.
A common theme here and across the board for defence communications is the idea of better situational awareness, improved logistics and coalition interoperability and versatility. Indeed, armed forces are at the cutting edge of ‘plug and play’ connectivity today.
As Roger Quayle, CTO of IPWireless, confirms: ‘There is a strong focus on the use of mobile broadband in theatre, especially in rapid field-deployable systems.’
Using international 3GPP standards and what it calls ‘Network in a Box’ configuration, where the base station, core network and components required for an autonomous network are mounted in one or two small boxes that can easily be lifted by two people, IPWireless supplies complete end-to-end mobile broadband systems.
Such systems fit a variety of purposes, as James Fisher, business development manager, Capability Research & Consultancy at Roke, explains. The company’s ‘Battlefield Connect’ solution is a portable 3G base station with a range of 40km.
‘While it’s easiest to think of it as a wide area 3G base station for the military, and therefore think about all the sorts of things one does with a normal 3G phone such as voice calls, sharing videos and pictures, and data access, one can also view it as a high bandwidth wireless IP network that can be connected to any other IP network,’ he says.
This means its use ranges from typical wide area battlefield comms, providing an alternative, or supplementing existing military networks, through to dedicated high bandwidth data links for specialist applications.
‘We’ve used our evolution system in a number of scenarios,’ he adds. ‘One was streaming video from a remote terminal to a base station over long ranges, where the remote terminal was travelling at high speed with the potential to stream video from a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) to a ground station. Another was linking into a Satcom IP link and demonstrating how internet and intranet access can be provided to a mobile handset in remote locations.’
Such systems with this kind of range as opposed to those which Fisher labels ‘stovepiped’ bring huge advantages in terms of interoperability and costs.
‘We use the term ‘single cellular battlespace’ to describe a possible future architecture where all voice and data comms can be served by an interoperable cellular network,’ he adds.
The solution helps solve problems with spectrum overload and fast mobile connectivity as Battlefield Connect allows increased amounts of high bandwidth information to be channelled through the spectrum without overload and can support speeds of up to 120km per hour.
Fisher also believes we are seeing a convergence between defence and civilian communications and that there are good reasons for this.
‘The investment put into civilian comms is something defence can no longer match, so it makes sense for defence to exploit this. Similarly, the rapid evolution of civilian technology and capability is something defence can take advantage of. And there are advantages on the human factor side too – taking advantage of user familiarity with civilian comms technology will lead to cost savings in training and quicker acceptance of new technology within the user community,’ he says.
‘There is a strong focus on the use of standards from the commercial mobile broadband market, to allow for low-cost COTS equipment and provide more advanced functionality and performance than traditional military communications technologies,’ adds Quayle.