Data explosion en route to wireless nirvana

Having served in the British army for over 30 years, John Terrington was involved in the delivery of battlefield communications and IT systems. Here, in his new role leading the communications and information infrastructure practice at QinetiQ, he talks about the use of wireless on the battlefield

Data explosion en route to wireless nirvana

Today’s operations demand more bandwidth down at foot soldier level, increased situational awareness and the ability to record data and access databases. So you have a mismatch developing between traditional military communications that have evolved over time and an explosion in the need to gather, transmit and access information,’ says John Terrington, alluding to the use of wireless during recent campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In Libya, this has led to lots of anecdotal cases emerging about rebel forces using Android apps and smartphones to lay weapons via GPS and identify targets more accurately via Google Maps.

‘What that’s done is to give a very good pointer as to the flexibility of smartphones,’ says Terrington. ‘Whereas historically a lot of armed forces were at the cutting edge of development capability, what has happened over the past 10 years is that the mobile phone industry has surged ahead in terms of functionality, battery capability and power management and all of that is pointing to potentially new ways forward in the military use of those capabilities, driven of course by a very significant downturn in the economic situation.’

3G infrastructure

In the past military radios were highly ruggedised and developed to carry out a small number of tasks and their prices reflected this. Whereas once these devices cost thousands or tens of thousands of pounds, devices today are significant computing platforms in their own right and tend to be in the hundreds of pounds category, something Terrington describes as ‘pretty seductive’.

‘Here, the Americans have seized the opportunity and are conducting very large-scale tests using mobile computing platforms and 3G infrastructure to see the benefits,’ he adds. ‘In the UK we are looking in a similar way, but one of the issues with mobile phones and devices has always been the difficulty in that much of the infrastructure that’s required to support them is not the kind of infrastructure you can necessarily deploy on the battlefield.
 
‘Quite clearly there are circumstances where this kind of capability becomes possible if you are in an enduring situation where you can build up operating bases effectively. Equally, the miniturisation and increasingly sophisticated package of small mobile phone cells that can be carried or easily mounted on vehicles starts to open up the possibility of the military being able to use these in a productive way,’ he says.

Portable femtocells

This means using things like portable femtocells, which can be carried by a man without unduly adding to the combat load.

Of course, the challenge here is identifying how they can be deployed by the military to good effect while working out how they can be used in conjunction with more traditional communications in a way that doesn’t impact upon required security requirements.

‘Certainly mobile phone infrastructure has been seen as a relatively easy target from a jamming point of view, and of course if you know where all the nodes are, then resilience becomes a critical issue,’ he says. ‘What is increasingly obvious is that many of the operations that are being conducted now start in a pretty austere and limited communications capability, almost a “come as you are” party, and then over time become more sophisticated as it becomes clearer how long the operation will last. That offers a window to build your own infrastructure or use what’s available to address some of those higher bandwidth needs that have developed at foot soldier level.’

Although he doesn’t want to go into specifics, Terrington believes that the sheer pace of advances in this area means that many of the security issues will be addressed naturally.

‘The increasing demand for Satcom has been driven by deployments being over much greater distances and that’s also tied up with the increasing demand for information and bandwidth. We’re just on the cusp of wider use of meshing radio techniques,’ he adds. ‘There are lots of potential uses for things like WiMAX for effectively self-forming radio networks that have multiple transmission capabilities. This offers the military flexibility in signal black-spots like built-up areas.’

The focus on information, as opposed to the technology needed to deliver it, is the key force multiplier when it comes to countering threats, according to Terrington. Previously the focus was on the network, but this has switched to combining multiple sources of information in any relevant way usable by those at all levels of command.

‘This means being able to size the network appropriately and be agile too,’ he adds. ‘We’re moving away from one or two bespoke capabilities to exploiting what’s available, whether it’s commercial or military, and becoming more comfortable with a composite mix of capabilities that fill requirements.

‘Effectively, it’s being able to build around a central point and move towards a wider network and that nirvana of meshing everything together to provide the information flows of everything you need’, he says.

Handheld devices

Where in the past government may have led, Terrington feels that the challenge now is to identify what parts of commercial infrastructure and developments can address their requirements in a way that requires minor adaptation to fit the bill.

‘Most soldiers are chasing the latest handheld devices and there are real advantages of having that technology in the inventory,’ he adds. ‘Indeed, the American military have found that if you give technology to servicemen they will come up with new ways of using it.

‘With handheld mobile devices, the Americans have put things like service field manuals, translation packages and the like on there. The potential is limitless really.’

Written by Wireless magazine
Wireless magazine

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