Battlefield comms

For governments, wireless communications look set to become increasingly central to plans in operational theatres as they seek to minimise risk to troops and equipment through the use of robotics and intelligent networks. Mark Dye reports

Battlefield comms

For those involved in explosive ordinance disposal (EOD) missions to counter the threat of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the old fashioned way was to put incredibly brave men into hot, heavy and uncomfortable bomb suits who would then waddle down to go face to face with an IED,’ says Joe Dyer, president, government and industrial division, at iRobot.

Today, thankfully things are different, with armies now able to get distance between IEDs and the EOD technicians via robots, with the wireless communication between the robot operator and the robot being fundamental to the success that they are having in theatre.

‘Wireless communications are an absolute necessity,’ adds Dyer. ‘We have some capability to use optical fibre but it’s more cumbersome, more expensive and more limiting than wireless.’

The Packbot

However, it wasn’t until late 2002 and early 2003, when US forces were in Afghanistan, that robots made their entry onto the battlefield.

The Packbot – one of iRobot’s machines – was a DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) advanced research programme pulled out of the laboratory and into service in Afghanistan to carry out cave reconnaissance.

‘This is as clear a technology transformation point as you can find,’ explains Dyer. ‘Before this, US Army tactics for cave exploration involved a young soldier with a 12ft stick and a rope around his waist so you could pull him out if he got hurt. You went from that to a virtual presence of a robot with wireless communications. The introduction of these systems has dramatically changed the character of the battlefield.’

To date, the company has delivered over 3,000 robots, with the largest number going to Iraq and Afghanistan to support troops that are in training to prior to deployment.


According to Dyer, one of the greatest challenges in modern urban warfare relates to maintaining communications inside buildings, urban canyons, sewers and other areas where troops may need to go and where robots are now sent. He says that depending on the materials and construction, the challenge is either hard or getting harder, and with the need for voice communications and the increasing importance of data traffic, this is something they are looking to solve with the LANdroid programme.

This is a DARPA born programme to establish a mobile ad-hoc network and be able to leave behind or distribute a number of small mobile robots that can be dynamically repositioned to maintain communications between operator and robot.

The hope is that by creating these LANdroids – or intelligent autonomous robotic radio relay nodes - which work to establish and maintain mesh networks supporting voice and data traffic, many of the communications problems that armies face in urban settings can be solved.

Dyer says that the programme will lead to the first inexpensive, palm-sized robots, which can then be dropped when needed during deployment.

‘The robot platform is one that we think will be ready to go in the early part of next year,’ he adds. ‘However, within times of conflict we’ve seen DARPA move very quickly. I can’t predict with any certainty when the LANdroids programme will become an operational capability but it certainly is one that’s needed.’

The concept is one of marsupial deployment and that, says Dyer, involves the robot dropping off LANdroids or even static links as the robot travels, in order to maintain communications. ‘It’s like a mothership dropping off small communication links,’ he adds.

Right now the development work is done on 802.11 but other parts of DARPA are working on the communications link and it will all come together as an operational package, he says.

Without a doubt, communications security is becoming an increasing area of focus and requirement, and as more and more imagery is passed around, the bandwidth demands continue to increase. This is because today’s robots are mostly tele-operated, meaning that much like a video game screen, the controller is looking at a video picture and driving the robot through the real world. It is maintaining this continuous video stream that generates the high bandwidth demands.

‘To try and relieve this incredible and growing demand for bandwidth the subject is autonomy,’ explains Dyer. ‘By building smarter robots that can take many of the navigation requirements on board rather than having to be directed continuously over the wireless link, we can claw some of this back.’

Of course, robots are just part of the story as to where wireless is permeating and acting as an enabler in the battlefield and army line of communications.

Real-time communication

Other companies, such as IPWireless, provide mobile technology in a number of locations to enable real-time tactical-edge collaboration.

Roger Quayle, CTO, explains how these allow for situational awareness and sensor data to be carried across a persistent and reliable wireless communication infrastructure, enabling real time communications to the last tactical mile.

‘The company’s network-in-a-box system is utilised for a range of scenarios, including secure voice and high-speed data communications, ground vehicles and command centre collaboration,’ he says. ‘By providing a fully secure mobile network, it is ideal for communications between Forward Operating Bases and dismounted soldiers in battlefield situations.’

Quayle says that the system is a ruggedised and quick to deploy solution, meaning it is well suited to situations where a communications network is required at short notice.

One key system strength is its ability to be deployed to quickly set up a mobile network – in less than 30 minutes – in an area where there is not currently a suitable network to conduct communications.

‘It provides a highly secure and efficient channel for data communications and can be customised to provide other services such as VoIP according to the functionality a situation demands,’ he adds. ‘As a ruggedised device it is also highly suited to locations that are not necessarily secure.’

MESH and Wi-Fi

Aruba Networks is one of the other companies specialising in frontline communications, having been selected at the busy Joint Base Balad in Iraq, as well as several other installations there and in Afghanistan. It uses MESH and outdoor Wi-Fi technology to create a pervasive coverage network and in the case of Balad, soldier access to the internet and local communications.

It has also been used in other similar installations in more forward deployed areas that are appropriate for tent to tent communications for a number of reasons, according to Dave Logan, general manager of federal solutions at Aruba Networks.

‘What they look for is easy to deploy, relatively high performance and secure, and one of the main reasons they are using wireless in some of these other more forward areas is that they’re finding their ability to build out the wired infrastructure between tent to tent is very difficult – it’s either unreliable or expensive,’ he says.

‘So they take an outdoor AP with a directional antenna and put one in one end and one in the other, point them at each other and you’ve got a wireless link. From a technology perspective, we use 802.11 as a base, plus MESH and our security architecture that concentrates on that end to end connection.’

Logan says that most traditional wireless solutions – including enterprise class solutions – run access control and encryption technology on the APs themselves. In that sense, Aruba’s is different.

‘We have a device called a controller – a multi-purpose device that is physically secure somewhere in the environment - and it

Written by Wireless magazine
Wireless magazine

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